In Searching, John Cho plays a desperate father, looking for his teenage daughter who has mysteriously disappeared. The hook? The entire movie plays out on screens; laptop screens, phone screens, television screens, etc. This isn’t the first movie to go for this, but it’s the first to really succeed, I think. There are several great things here. The writing is top notch; it’s not forced or contrived, at least not until the very end. The first five to ten minutes of the movie could really function as a short film on its own as it chronicles the life of the missing daughter from birth to her teenage years, all through the prism of the computer screens controlled by her and her parents. It gives the film an emotional punch I really wasn’t expecting and it makes the movie far more than just a gimmicky thriller. It really is a beautiful opening and it establishes both character and stakes in a totally organic way. Also, the camera here treats the screen like a landscape. Here’s what I mean. In movies like Unfriended, you basically just see the screen as a whole for the entire movie; it’s as if you’re literally just looking at the laptop screen. Here, the camera moves around the screen. It might start showing the whole screen and then do a slow zoom in on a pertinent detail or it might pan from one side of the screen to the other or just cut to a close-up. It treats the screen the way we actually treat screens; we don’t sit back and just watch the entirety of our screen – we focus on certain places on the screen, depending on our task or our interest at that moment and by using the camera this way, the film stays alive and has energy. It doesn’t feel static; it feels imaginative and smart and like it’s actually telling a story rather than just sitting back and letting us navigate the screen ourselves. Of course, the secret weapon of the film is John Cho who is always excellent in whatever he does; he rarely gets the chance to just anchor a film because of his ethnicity (I mean, let’s be honest; that’s why). But he shows himself totally up to the challenge with this charismatic and empathetic performance. Michelle La is very good as the missing daughter, seen in videos she’s recorded on her computer. Sara Sohn is also excellent as the absent mother; she’s able to create a real character and get real emotion out of the audience while only being in the film a very, very short time. The story does eventually strain credulity with the last couple of plot developments, but it’s still refreshing to see a movie that is unapologetically a mystery. The mystery genre has mostly migrated to television, so it’s fun to see a good old-fashioned “what happened” mystery on the big screen. And, yes, there’s a brief montage, once the truth is revealed, where the filmmakers show you a handful of the clues that you missed from earlier in the movie and that’s always cool. Anyway, I found this to just be a really, really great time at the movies; it’s entertaining, creative, emotional and just an all around triumph really. It’s got a great hook and it handles it really creatively, making more out of the premise than you expect. And it’s just a good story with compelling characters to boot. It’s a blast and more than just a gimmick. 4 stars.
tl;dr – central premise of the film is handled creatively and compelling characters and a real emotional punch make this a lot more than just a gimmicky movie. 4 stars.