It’s difficult to make an internet-paranoia thriller without sounding like a hysterical scold, and even harder to make one without getting accused of hysterical scolding. But the mini-boom of first-person internet thrillers has, if nothing else, found a way to plug audiences directly into that paranoia, making it feel more immediate and justified. The technique, cleverly used by the new thriller Searching, is a cousin of the found-footage style; instead of everything captured via in-movie recording devices, the “action” unfolds entirely through real-life screens. In the Unfriended series, it’s mostly confined to whatever the lead character sees through his laptop; Searching fudges a little with some local-news streaming, surveillance cameras, and a few other images that aren’t necessarily being watched by David Kim (John Cho) in real time. It also switches between two computers, including one that may induce unexpected sighs of nostalgia over that forgotten Windows XP home screen. But the effect is the same, as a mystery develops less through traditional action than by process.
Searching gets to that process a bit quicker than most. Its speed during the obligatory things-are-normal setup is aided by the ways screen-sharing can efficiently deliver exposition, making it somehow both more direct (through access to search engine use, glimpses of chat history, and old photos) and subtler (sparing the actors the awkwardness of explaining their characters’ relationships to each other). A heartbreaking (yet quick) progression through 16 or 17 years’ worth of computer files makes it immediately clear that David and his wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn), love their daughter, Margot (played as a teenager by Michelle La), and by the end of the sequence, it also establishes that David and Margot haven’t recovered from losing Pamela to cancer.
Through their brief iChats and video calls, David tries to dote on Margot without actually broaching any topics more serious than how she might do on her school tests or whether she forgot to take out the garbage. When she curtails one conversation in order to get back to an all-night study group, he’s disappointed, if not especially surprised. But then he misses a call from her later in the evening, and the next day she’s not at school and doesn’t return home. Some cursory sleuthing reveals that the other kids in the study group aren’t all that close with her, and that she wasn’t there even close to all night. As David attempts to track down his daughter, he discovers that he may not know her life as well as he thinks he does.
It’s that fear, of gaps between parents and children widening enough to swallow the kids up, that Searching exploits with canny skill—technically it’s more thriller than horror movie, but for some parents it will constitute an 102-minute nightmare. Soon David is in regular contact with Detective Vick (Debra Messing), who has been assigned to his daughter’s missing-person case; she forms a slim support system along with his brother, Peter (Joseph Lee). If anything, Searching is even more stripped-down than an Unfriended movie, which (so far) have made mini-ensembles out of group-chat situations. For much of this movie, it’s just David and his computer. This gives John Cho a too-rare chance to hold the screen on his own, and he makes such a natural, empathetic everyman that the movie may well provoke frustration that he hasn’t had more of these opportunities. Messing and Lee are effective, too, but it’s Cho who brings to mind the unforced gravity of a ’50s Hitchcock lead, if a Hitchcock hero had access to instant messaging and Excel grids of witness interviews.
The movie itself has a little in common with mid-tier Hitchcock gimmick pictures like Rope or Dial M For Murder. It also resembles some kind of interactive video mystery party game, providing the audience with an avatar, a barrage of potential clues, and everything they need to attempt to solve the case themselves. This keeps the movie honest—there’s no reason to use this technique on a mystery story if it’s not going to play fair—and, to some extent, limits its impact, despite its affecting father/daughter relationship. Ultimately, there isn’t room for a close look at the internet’s heart of darkness, or a real rumination on parenting challenges. As a thriller, Searching is both ruthlessly absorbing in the moment and relatively disposable as soon as it ends, sliding itself gracefully into the desktop recycling bin.