Every parent’s worst nightmare is at the center of Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, an at times harrowing abduction story that revolves around one father’s search for his missing daughter. However, instead of going on the run and using a particular set of skills a la Liam Neeson, the dad in question uses his child’s computer to piece together clues that may lead to her abductor. More telling are the things he learns about his daughter as he delves into her online life, an act that leads to far too many uncomfortable revelations, all of which underscore just how little he knows about her.
Chaganty hooks us from the start with a long prologue that acts very much like the beginning of Pixar’s Up. Seeing only the screen of the Kim family’s computer, we witness the ups and downs of the nuclear unit by watching all that is recorded and saved on the device’s desktop. We see young Margot grow from a precocious little girl to a confident young teen about to enter high school while also witnessing her mother Pam’s (Sara Sohn) arduous bout with cancer before she eventually succumbs to it. Her father David (John Cho) ages over the course of this montage that covers more than a decade, ever vigilant and ever supportive of the two most important people in his life. This opening is very well-done, primarily because Chaganty also chronicles how social media emerges, grows and changes over this time, a factor that plays a key role in the film.
Once this exposition is dispensed with, David becomes concerned over the lack of communication he’s had with his daughter over a two-day period, having been misled into thinking she’s away on a camping trip with friends. Turns out none of her peers know where she is, leaving the panicked father no other choice but to call the police. Upon telling all he knows of Margot’s last whereabouts, he’s introduced to Detective Vick (Debra Messing), who’s been assigned to this case.
What ensues follows the standard procedural model except for one key difference: We are only privy to David’s efforts to uncover clues as he hacks into his daughter’s various social media and email accounts to contact her friends and associates. What he discovers is something all parents fear and suspect: that through a misplaced sense of giving their kids privacy and a major dose of denial, they truly don’t know their child.
Much like the criminally underrated Unfriended: Dark Web from earlier this year, the viewer’s perspective is restricted to nothing but the Kim’s desktop screen. As the cursor frantically skitters from one window to the next, we are privy to Margot’s online history as well as the many FaceTime calls David gets or makes and newscasts from television station websites that keep the viewer abreast of developments in the young woman’s case. While this approach tempts stagnation, Chaganty keeps things moving at a brisk pace, switching from one desktop window to another regularly and even utilizing footage from planted cameras when David is forced to leave the computer. What could easily have become a fragmented mess of disparate parts, proves engaging, a distinctive 21st century vision that mirrors the sort of storytelling younger generations have embraced.
While all of this is intriguing enough, the film falters during its third act. There’s a plot twist that’s just a bit too convenient for its own good as well as a resolution that’s far too neat. Had it followed through on its initial dark concept, Searching would have been one of the best thrillers of the year. Instead, it follows the pattern of far too many movies today, containing a hell of a hook but little in the way of follow through.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.