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Mystery-thriller Searching explores what our online presence fails to capture

John Cho plays David Kim, searching online for his daughter.

As a society, we tend to subscribe to the notion that we live most of our lives in a virtual landscape. We date online, swiping left and right, in search of the perfect mate. We like the pictures and seemingly spontaneously blurted-out ideas of others and ascribe the “friend” label to folks we’ve never met in-person or had truly meaningful interactions with beyond a series of keyboard exchanges. We imagine that our readings of people from the screen matter more than face-to-face communications.

Searching, the new film from Aneesh Chaganty (who co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian) expertly uses an ingenious gimmick to force us to question this situation and face some uncomfortable truths along the way. From the moment we move past the opening credits, Chaganty immerses us in a virtual space that is so familiar, we probably don’t even consider it to be as much of a narrative trick, as the next generation of storytelling.

From the web browser of a laptop, we’re introduced to David Kim (John Cho), his loving wife Pamela (Sara Sohn), and their daughter Margot (who as a preteen is portrayed by Alex Jayne Go, Megan Lui, and Kya Dawn Lau). We peek at the family’s photos and home videos from birth through a series of Margot’s first days of school to the slow revelation of illness—Pamela’s—that inevitably reaches terminal status. The progression from joy to tragic sorrow feels real and heartbreaking in these small yet significant doses, because this is how we keep up with our closest friends and family. That was the initial promise of social media; it provided opportunity and means to remain in contact with people across great distances.

Shortly after Pamela’s death, the emotional beats evolve. Margot’s teenage routines appear to remain in place—she’s a great student who still manages to practice piano—and David exerts great effort to be the best parent he can be, but the void left in Pamela’s wake is obvious. There is an emptiness in the frames (and remember, we’re getting all of this information through a computer screen).

David nags Margot about not taking out the garbage through texts and a photo of the overflowing can, and this is supposed to be a sign of the intimacy shared between father and daughter. Before long, we come to recognize how this online presentation—the storytelling gimmick—exposes a harsh reality. Margot disappears, and at first, it is easy to make excuses. Simple miscommunications between David and Margot, assumptions about schedules and such, and mis-readings of tones in messages, give way to the realization that something is amiss.

Why the film works as well as it does, once the truth becomes apparent, is that Cho’s David lives for us, engages us through the glimpsed frames from social media and his computer’s camera. David is achingly human, eager and desperate, then driven to explosiveness, before bottoming out in his guilt. It is through David that we understand just how little we know the people we are supposedly close to. David and Margot exist in the same house, but each has used the virtual world to lock themselves away from one another. We get close to them through herculean effort—David’s as well as Chaganty and Ohanian’s—but that is only because we’ve been programmed by plot machinations.

Would it take something this drastic to wake us up to our own relationship inadequacies?

The 2014 film Unfriended exploited the online presentation trick, casting a group of friends in an online chat room as the victims of a supernatural force that preyed on them, picking them off one-by-one. The director Leo Gabriadze started things off with numerous open screens, portals for each member of the group that closed one-by-one as the otherworldly force ended their sessions, if you will. The movie collapsed completely into the trick because there was never a meaningful engagement with any of the characters.

Yet in Searching, once David brings others into the investigation into Margot’s disappearance, we immediately find ourselves drawn to each new figure. We long to spend more time with Detective Vick (Debra Messing), in the hopes of breaking open the case from her perspective. And then there’s David’s brother Peter (Joseph Lee) who we see in fleeting snatches, just enough to gather hints of the sibling dynamic and a suspicious intimacy between the roguish uncle and his missing niece.

The third-act twists and turns that arrive with a knowing anticipation shift the story into a more familiar procedural environment, but that doesn’t derail the haunting and hard truths laid bare from the start. Searching takes us back to what matters most about our friends and family, and the actual steps necessary to establish real interconnectivity.

Rating: PG-13

Grade: A