We first meet dad David (John Cho), mother Pam (Sara Sohn) and daughter Margot (Michelle La) through a cleverly edited montage of their on-line activity. From e-mails and YouTube videos to log-ins and Facebook pages, we learn about their lives including Pam’s cancer diagnosis. The tight family is torn apart by Pam’s illness, with 16-year-old Margot retreating pulling away from her father until one night when she disappears without a trace after a study group meeting. When she fails to answer any of David’s texts he calls the police. Working with Detective Vick (Debra Messing) he sifts through Margot’s online life in a desperate search for clues. The deeper his cyber investigation goes the more twists appear. “I didn’t know my daughter,” he says.
From Google Maps and app controlled surveillance cameras to FaceTime and Instagram, the story is told through a series of browser windows via laptops and iPhones, any device with a screen. It sounds like it will sterile, like an afternoon of web surfing with higher stakes, but director Aneesh Chaganty humanizes the story. Technology tells the tale but the beating heart of the narrative is David’s determination to find his daughter. The film’s style is very specific and very modern but the theme of connection between parents and children is universal.
“Searching” feels like high tech Hitchcock as David uncovers the details of his daughter’s life. The more browsers, the more suspense. Chaganty uses our familiarity with these sites—many of us go to them everyday—to ground the story in reality and underline the alienating quality of social media that fails to fill the hole left by loneliness and grief. Also, who would have thought a Norton antivirus reminder that Pam’s account hasn’t been scanned in 694 days could take on such poignancy?
We’ve seen these screen-shot movies before—2014’s “Unfriended” comes to mind—but none have had the emotional arc of “Searching.” It’s a little too conventional in its climax and conclusion but John Cho’s terrific performance and some genuine thrills elevate the story past its visual gimmick.