Russian producer Timur Bekmambetov, who is making a specialty of movies shown from the perspective of computer screens (most notably the “Unfriended” flicks), offers another with this missing-daughter thriller written and directed by Aneesh Chaganty. Apparently the makers hope that the device of viewing everything on a monitor, even when there’s nobody around to watch it, will disguise the fact that the story is twisty but ultimately ridiculous and the acting mediocre at best; but though well executed, the stratagem doesn’t succeed.
The story begins with what is easily its best sequence—a long montage that encompasses, in home movies, stills and messages posted on Facebook over the years, the marriage of David and Pamela Kim (John Cho and Sara Sohn) and the birth and growing-up of their daughter Margot (played successively by Alex Jayne Go, Megan Liu, Kya Dawn and Michelle La). It’s alternately joyous and silly, until it turns sad with the illness and death of Pamela from lymphoma.
It then turns to the present, with widower David hovering over Margot, now a high-school student. He thinks that they have a great relationship, but he’s wrong. One night, after claiming that she’ll be late because her study group is running long, she doesn’t come home at all. Nor is she answering her phone. David is concerned enough to begin calling people, including his brother Peter (Joseph Lee). His concern grows after he learns that she cancelled her piano lessons months earlier without telling him (but taking the money for them). He heaves a sigh of relief when he learns from a friend’s mom that she’s probably gone off on a mountain hike with some pals, but then soon finds out she didn’t.
Finally calling the police, David’s assigned an extremely solicitous case officer named Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), who offers soothing words and support but uncovers no leads. David, meanwhile, is scouring message boards and chat rooms, worming his way past Margot’s private passwords. It turns out she’s been posting sometimes unsettling monologues and corresponding with people who might not be who they claim to be; he begins to suspect that catfishing is involved, especially after he learns that Margot had used devious means to send money to herself and then recently withdrew it.
Eventually David tracks down his wayward, depressed daughter, but along the way he will become an Internet sensation himself, accosting a person he believes was involved in her disappearance. He will even comes to suspect one of the people closest to him. And just as it appears that the search is over, it suddenly takes a new turn—into territory that throws it in an entirely new, and frankly preposterous direction. Even the Agatha Christie of “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” would have been embarrassed by the ridiculously contorted finale Chaganty and Sev Ohanian have come up with.
Of course, everything plays out on the computer monitor, which is filled with news reports and on-the-spot footage even though by now David is in the frame himself, no longer watching the screen. (We, presumably, have replaced him as the indefatigable users.) That’s a sign that the movie’s conceit has fallen apart no less than the overall plot has. All one has to do in order to recognize how nonsensical “Searching” has become by the close is to imagine the movie remade as a straight missing-person drama, without the elaborate computer apparatus as the prism through which we see it. Viewers would be laughing it off the screen by the time the second or third shocking twist intruded in the last act.
They’d also be smirking over the quality of the acting, which is overall pretty poor. Cho gets by on the basis of his naturally sympathetic persona, but Messing comes across so affected that she might as well be made of plastic, and among the lesser characters only Sohn’s Pamela registers as a real person.
The strength of “Searching,” in fact, lies on the technical side. It can’t have been easy to frame all the images skillfully and then mix them together while keeping everything clear, but cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron and editors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson have worked closely with Chaganty to manage it. Of course it won’t be long before the “computer screen” movie becomes as old-hat and moth-eaten as “found footage” ones have, but for the moment one can salute the makers for having pulled off the stunt as skillfully as they have done. “Searching” is certainly better than the “Unfriended” movies.
That’s not the same thing as saying it’s a particularly good one, though. “Searching” is a missing-person thriller that holds your attention for awhile simply because of the unusual way it’s told, but by the end it’s literally gone over a cliff into narrative absurdity.