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The Kids Are Online: Digital Life Is the Scene of the Crime in ‘Searching’

The new John Cho mystery is like a typical crime thriller, except all the action takes place on phones and computers, which, chillingly, is a very accurate depiction of life in 2018

Screen Gems/Ringer illustration

It’s one of the most memorable public service announcements of all time: Against a black screen, a deep, paternal voice asks the viewer, “It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are?” The commercial, which first aired on an ABC affiliate in New York in the summer of 1967, was rooted in paranoia that the kids weren’t all right, that the counterculture was swallowing them up one missed curfew at a time. The somber yet alarmist tone of the ad made it ripe for parody, but it left a mark on America’s multimedia consciousness before going out of date sometime around Al Gore’s invention of the internet. By then—and definitely right now—most parents know exactly where their children are at 10 o’clock (and midnight, and 4 a.m.). They’re online.

The new thriller Searching, which opens wide on Friday and was directed by former Google commercials creator Aneesh Chaganty and stars John Cho, mines this new status quo for suspense and pathos. Long before single dad David (Cho) realizes that teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) is literally missing—vanished overnight without so much as a voicemail—he inwardly accepts that he’s lost her to the digital real. In true millennial fashion, the pair communicate almost exclusively via text, sacrificing literal face time for the Apple version; Dad’s messages, of course, are longer.

The tension in Searching comes out of watching David figure out how to penetrate and navigate Margot’s social media persona, with its array of discombobulating avatars (her own and her friends’), in order to better determine her physical whereabouts. The gimmick is that his quest—and indeed, every single aspect of the film, from flashbacks to side plots to red herrings to soundtrack cues—is seen and heard within the space of various characters’ computer and cellphone screens, the images captured and reproduced across a vast network of social networks and video platforms.

It’s fitting that this aesthetic, with its embedded themes of informational manipulation and the invasion of privacy, can be traced directly to a Russian mastermind: the Kazakh-born mogul Timur Bekmambetov, whose designs on American box office supremacy are so transparent that he lives in Walt Disney’s old house in Los Angeles.

In the past, Bekmambetov styled himself as the Steven Spielberg (or maybe the Roger Corman) of the former Soviet bloc, churning out the supernatural fantasy thrillers Night Watch and Day Watch before helming the Hollywood blockbuster Wanted. As a director, Bekmambetov is a maximalist who never met a swooping camera movement or CGI monster that he didn’t like, but as a producer, he’s diversified into sly, low-fi thrills.

2014’s Unfriended, depicting a group Skype session infiltrated by an evil spirit that weaponizes the victim’s webcams (and iTunes playlists) against them, was the inception point of Bekmambetov’s new side hustle, which is the subgenre of what we might call “laptop cinema.” While Italian gore-meister Nacho Vigalondo technically got there first the same year with the Elijah Wood–starring Open Windows, the creative team behind Unfriended perfected the style on the first try. The ingenious virtual art direction and ghost-in-the-machine subtext of Unfriended, combined with the real-time intensity of its staging and performances, made it one of the decade’s great horror movies—and this summer’s excellent Unfriended: Dark Web doubled down on the the style, adding a layer of political commentary to the fun.

Searching isn’t as culturally suggestive (or nearly as vicious) as the Unfriended films, and by stretching its story across several days, its digital mise-en-scène becomes less rigorous as well. Technically, the movie takes place on a single computer screen, but there’s more confusion about who is watching—or how—than there should be. At a certain point, the story gets so big, with so many characters and moving parts, that it requires the playing of YouTube clips of news footage that, even in 2018, are probably something that people would watch on TV more than their computers. At the same time, Chaganty’s assignment has a higher degree of difficulty, since the script (which he cowrote with Sev Ohanian) requires considerably more exposition and character development than its stylistic peers. If Searching’s commitment to its gimmick results in sometimes clumsy and cumbersome storytelling, that’s the price of ambition, and because so much of what’s here works well, it’s hard to hold these flaws against it.

Because 2018 has already given us the sublime, 10-years-in-five-minutes overture of The Commuter, Searching’s opening sequence is playing for second place, but it’s strong stuff all the same. As an unseen hand opens and closes programs on the screen, we see photo and video evidence of one family’s sweetly quotidian existence, expressed as a tangle of JPEGs, iMovies, and Google Docs reminders. (It’s all scored to a recording of one of Margot’s childhood piano recitals, a detail that ends up figuring in the plot.) The post–Christopher Nolan predictability of David’s plight—his wife dies of lymphoma, rendering her a posthumous saint and leaving him and Margot alone—is made affecting by a combination of narrative compression and perfectly chosen digital signifiers. The most effective of these is a series of iCalendar updates pushing the “Mom home from hospital” event further and further into the future before tentatively but finally depositing it in the trash—nothing in the much-loved prologue of Up was quite so devastating.

It’s implied that Margot’s internet-abetted remove from her father is due to sincere grief over her mother’s passing rather than a symptom of social-media self-hypnosis (a theme analyzed more intensely and incessantly in the Sundance hit Assassination Nation) or a gateway to sleazy, pixelated webcam self-exploitation (which is the subject of the upcoming and very interesting Netflix thriller Cam). There are more emotions in play in Searching than Unfriended, but what the films have in common—and what makes them vital and fascinating as 21st-century moving-image works—is how the pileup of on-screen information generates genuine affect in the viewer. Even if you’re not invested in the story, it’s mesmerizing; you want to reach out to close chat windows or get rid of the anti-virus software alert hovering in the corner of the frame.

Whether one finds such authenticity exhilarating or deeply disturbing (i.e., that it’s now scarily easy to relate to experiencing the world through the mediation of a computer screen), it has an undeniable power, turbocharging the plot twists that, in a more conventionally told mystery, might seem cheesy. Searching is one of the twistiest thrillers to come down the pike in a while—twisty to a fault. Its intrigue is intricately constructed so as to hold up on a second viewing, but the entire apparatus still feels rickety the longer it goes along, buckling under the weight of so much coy narrative and audiovisual trickery.

What holds Searching together is its star. Always an enjoyable comedian, Cho has grown into a reliably good actor and aged nicely, providing a sad-eyed soulfulness for a character who’s driven as much by guilt as righteous, protective fury. It’s possible to reconcile David’s bewilderment with the sweet, put-upon anxiety that Cho displayed in the original, wonderful Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, itself a quest narrative about chasing after the things that matter most. In structural terms, Searching is essentially a dual character study, with David as its on-screen protagonist and Margot as its structuring absence. Her particulars are filled in like search terms as her father goes along. A lot of what Cho does here consists of looking intent while scrolling through Tumblrs and Facebook pages, and I’m not being at all sarcastic to say that he does it well, conveying the entwined urgency and confusion of a man who finds himself on unfamiliar and ephemeral turf.

It’s the sort of part that Liam Neeson could play in his sleep, except that because David isn’t required at any point to become an action hero, there’s almost zero macho posturing. The excitement comes from watching a character without a special set of skills try to assert himself in a situation that, for once, is actually best left to the professionals, represented by a well-cast Debra Messing as a cop who gamely takes on David as an unofficial partner.

That’s about all I can reveal without wrecking what Searching has to offer. The reveals start around the midway point and just keep going; not since The Return of the King has a movie had so many endings. The screenplay leaves the possibility of a Gone Girl–style self-kidnapping open for long enough that you may start to wonder what’s really going on (the sign of a decent thriller), and yet if you’ve seen enough movies like this, you’ll probably figure out at least one of the mysteries well before our on-screen surrogate: With half an hour to go, you’ll know where David’s kid is.