“Searching” is an impressive technical thriller that never quite finds what it’s looking for

The new thriller starring John Cho is a technical breakthrough with some minor glitches

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Relatively recent advances in technology have permanently altered the way we communicate and interact with one another, so it’s somewhat strange that these changes to modern life haven’t really found their way to the big screen. There are exceptions of course, one of these being the much-maligned 2014 horror film “Unfriended,” taking place entirely on computer screens, while another is “Black Mirror,” the Netflix anthology series about the perils of the digital world. Despite the relative commercial success of both, the “online thriller” hasn’t yet risen above a lazy gimmick, the way found-footage films were 15 years ago.

For the most part, “Searching” gets this genre right in a way that hasn't been done before. Add in the fact that it’s the first thriller released by a major studio with an Asian-American actor (the always excellent John Cho) in the lead role, and it quickly becomes easy to overlook the minor flaws in “Searching” in favor of its technical precision and historical significance.

“Searching” follows David Kim (John Cho), a grieving husband whose daughter Margot (Michelle La) suddenly disappears without a trace one night. Instead of going directly to the police and conducting a city-wide hunt immediately, Kim instead opens up his daughter’s laptop, and through scouring her social media for clues, he finds that he doesn’t know her as well as he thought he did. The incorporation of social media and use of screens are a smart digital twist to what otherwise is familiar territory that wouldn’t feel out of place on a weekly crime procedural.

The central gimmick of a movie that plays out only on various screens should be just that, a gimmick, but it’s a testament to the film’s impressive editing that “Searching” never feels like a rehash of earlier films, nor does it ever feel overly dependant on its technical tricks. Its style remarkably avoids becoming an eye-sore, and it’s entertaining to watch the various clever ways it subverts this method over the course of the film, whether through utilizing news coverage from a website, or having a character set up security cameras and watch the ensuing footage from a laptop.

Though the film’s technical elements are groundbreaking, its plot is not. After shockingly pulling off the dramatic high-wire act of building tension and genuine thrills out of FaceTime and iMessage in its tightly written first two-thirds, the film’s third act nearly undoes everything by becoming unnecessarily convoluted through various twists and last second plot developments. Thankfully, it doesn’t completely fall apart, but it ultimately does reach for an overly-sentimental ending that isn’t quite earned.

A moment that “Searching” does surprise is in its scathing critique of the hollowness of social media tributes. In a brief montage midway through the film, we see the social media posts of various people who have previously dismissed his missing daughter by saying they weren’t friends with her or didn’t know her at all, and now claim that she was their best friend, or, even better, sending “thoughts and prayers.” This condemnation of exploiting a tragedy for likes and favorites is an unexpected beat, but it adds a wonderfully dark comic moment in a film whose other attempts at humor don’t often land and occasionally feel completely misguided.

It’s impossible to tell whether “Searching” will stand as an influential film in a developing genre years down the line, or whether it’ll be looked back at as a dated relic of a bygone time in the same way we view ‘90s cyber-thrillers as embarrassing nowadays. But for the present moment, especially after a summer full of bland studio sequels, it’s refreshing to see something that’s never been attempted before, even if there are some occasional glitches in the finished product.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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