Searching: Ace Thriller Asks Timely Questions about Digital-Age Identity, Privacy

By Kim Hughes

Rating: A-

For a film where every single scene is rigidly contained within a screen — framed by an iPhone FaceTime chat, a laptop exchange, TV image, home movie or security camera surveillance — Searching has a surprising sense of momentum. 

It also has an unambiguous message about our perilous attachment to digital devices, how they push us apart despite fostering the illusion of more contact while allowing us to assume alternative identities with impunity. Well, sort of. 

John Cho in Searching...

John Cho in Searching...

David Kim (John Cho) is the widowed father of 15-year-old Margot (Michelle La), a seemingly popular and bubbly student and piano ace who, as a modern teenager, is also a slave to her devices. When Margot goes silent after a late-night study-group session, David isn’t immediately alarmed. Margot is a good kid; there must be a reasonable explanation. By the end of the next day when all of David’s texts and calls have gone unanswered, terror sets in. Especially since Margot’s laptop has been left at home.  

Thus begins an online search by David, encouraged and abetted by Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), a private detective on the case, to try and discover clues as to where Margot might be, who she might be with, and why she suddenly disappeared. 

In multiple scenes that will doubtless send shivers through parents (and husbands and wives), David makes some startling discoveries as he dives deeper into Margot’s online world, one reclaimed “forgotten” password at a time.

Margot’s actions seem confusing, mysterious, and exacerbated by the fact that David is breaking a deeply enshrined taboo: Thou shalt not access anyone’s browser history without consent. And yet without a digital trail, Margot’s whereabouts may never be known. Is this the price we pay for access?  And who are all these vague creeps with dubious connections to Margot?

David’s increasingly frantic search leads him down some genuinely disturbing paths… or are they? Context is everything of course. Searching draws much of its power from what we project onto it: If someone looked at your recent search queries and web affiliations tomorrow, before you had done any housekeeping or cache-clearing, would they be surprised/alarmed/amused by what they found?

Cho, perhaps best known for the brilliantly subversive Harold & Kumar stoner comedies, is terrific as the beleaguered dad agonizingly coming to grips with how little he really knows about his daughter and those in her orbit. As Cho’s David becomes increasingly unhinged, he also summons immense purpose. If he doesn’t solve this crime, it won’t get solved. And nothing could be worse than a mystery. 

The film’s final reveal gives way to a fairly silly (well… IMHO) twist. But given how consistently edge-of-seat this film is throughout its running time — and how its novel conceit underscores a claustrophobic yet manic vibe that’s utterly persuasive — it’s a fair trade for the explosive outcome we get. 

Searching. Directed by Aneesh Chaganty. Starring John Cho, Debra Messing, and Michelle La. Opens wide August 31.