John Cho Redeems Uneven Missing-Person Drama "Searching"

Like 2015 horror picture “Unfriended,” missing-person film “Searching” unfolds entirely on a computer screen – in FaceTime conversations, text messages, news footage, and Google deep dives, all giving the film’s title an apt double meaning. Writer-director Aneesh Chaganty employs this technical bent efficiently but also as a sort of protective cocoon; this is his feature length debut. A cursor darting between apps and webpages makes for good cover in a story that begins as almost unbearably maudlin and ends in pure outlandishness.

But what’s sandwiched in between is good, and star John Cho, who’s come a long way since playing “MILF Guy #2” in “American Pie,” is great, credibly inhabiting a distraught, recently widowed father who’s teenage daughter has gone missing.

Following a gratuitously weepy prologue, the pic finds Silicon Valley residents David (Cho) and his 15-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) muddling along in the wake of the loss of their wife and mother, straining to connect in the rare instances that they attempt to connect at all. Chaganty doesn’t merely observe his two leads actively, but passively, too, lingering on idle FaceTime windows long after conversations have ended. It’s a clever sidestep of potentially uncomfortable voyeurism, complemented by a screenplay that never revels in salaciousness.

In truth, the film is a notably tasteful, simultaneously painting a picture of how a parent might not really know their child – without either being to blame – and doling out bite-sized criticisms of the grand American tradition of capitalizing on tragedy. Once Margot goes missing – inexplicably unreachable by the phone typically welded to her hand – “Searching” becomes more than an irresistible trail of digital bread crumbs; it becomes disarmingly human.

The exception to Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian’s restraint is Debra Messing’s Rosemary Vick, the detective assigned to Margot’s case. The performance is shaky and the character shakier, beginning as an archetype of virtuous law enforcement and ending up the crux of the movie’s most ludicrous plot points. Through Vick the filmmaker follows his inclination to surprise too far, eventually sinking into the exploitative muck he had so skillfully avoided.

But David’s frantic, tech-based search for his daughter keeps us engaged until the bitter or not-so-bitter end, Cho’s performance exposing layers the actor has only begun to access. No film has better depicted the notion that the more connected we are, the more terrifying it becomes to not be able to reach a loved one. And despite a few glaring flaws, “Searching” is a surprisingly delicate look at all that goes into that anxiety. It’s not a fun watch, but it is an occasionally stirring one.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: August 24, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: Screen Gems (Sony)
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Screenwriters: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language)