All of the action in Aneesh Chaganty’s thriller Searching unfolds on screens. The film adheres strictly to this self-imposed diktat. Large portions of the film take place on a single desktop. Almost all calls, sometimes unbelievably so, are video calls. When the action moves outside, CCTV cameras look on and characters either live-stream or are being filmed by any of the plethora of devices available to the world.
The opening minutes quickly sets up the back story with a montage of videos posted to social media, e-mails and instant messages. David Kim (John Cho) has an idyllic family life with his wife and daughter and works as successful executive at a Silicon Valley company. His life is thrown into disarray by the death of his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) to cancer, and he is left to bring up their teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La). Fast-forward to two years: Margot, now 15, has gone missing.
Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is the detective investigating the case. Perhaps noticing David’s command over technology, she encourages him to provide her with as much information as he can find about Margot. David becomes increasingly obsessive in his quest to crack the mystery and discover what happened to his daughter and whether she is still alive.
John Cho, who is best-known for the Harold & Kumar film series(2004-’11) and last year’s Columbus and Gemini, turns in a truly engrossing performance and takes you on the journey of a father trying to locate his missing daughter. Messing has very little screen time, but is effective, as is Michelle La who is perfectly able to portray the innocence of youth and the troubled teen unable to make sense of the adult world.
The device across the screenplay (by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian) of using only screens works insofar as it gives the film a kind of interactive feel, simulating the experience of playing a video game. The audience goes along with David as he hacks into his daughter’s laptop, phone and social media accounts for new information that might solve the case. The film refers to its own conceit as David’s investigation sparks off Reddit threads, TMZ photos, Twitter trends, YouTube conspiracy theories and general online hysteria.
However, the technique that is the film’s selling point doesn’t add up to Searching. There is no scene that feels better for the use of it. Although the storytelling device never seems gimmicky and it is apparent that a great deal of thought has gone into integrating screens into the plot, Searching is very much a conventional whodunit that has its share of satisfyingly predictable twists and turns and emotionally resonant moments. The technique becomes window dressing, similar to using a new model of a camera to tell the same story.