“Searching” is a thriller with a gimmick. The entire story takes place on screens, and we see the action play out on devices like laptops and phones.
But the movie never feels gimmicky, which is perhaps the neatest feat achieved by first-time director Aneesh Chaganty. Unlike 2014’s similar “Unfriended,” you never sense any constraints by the concept, and you just buy in.
In its most inventive moments, it almost feels like a new way of storytelling. “Searching” opens by introducing us to the Kim family as a viewer goes through emails, family photos and home movies stored on their computer. It’s a compact, graceful montage that recalls the introductory moments of “Up,” of all things, and it packs a similar emotional wallop.
From there, things move quickly. David Kim (John Cho, solid as always) is a widower, his wife having died two years earlier. He’s devoted to his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La). And he’s close with his younger brother, Peter (Joseph Lee), a ne’er-do-well pothead.
One night, Margot doesn’t come home. At first, David is annoyed; then it gradually turns to panic. Her friends don’t know much — in fact, she doesn’t really seem to have any. He calls his daughter’s piano teacher, only to learn that she hasn’t seen Margot in six months. What about the money he’s been giving Margot for lessons? Well, she did mysteriously withdraw $2,500 from her account with no explanation.
With the aid of sympathetic Detective Vick (Debra Messing), he delves deeper into Margot’s world. He realizes his daughter is maybe not the person he believes — or is she? Because we’re seeing everything through David’s eyes, we’re also seeing Margot as she presents herself through live-blogging sites and social-media profiles. In a subtle way, the movie comments about how we present ourselves vs. who we really are.
Chaganty, who wrote the screenplay with Sev Ohanian, keeps things taut and tense, but he never loses sight of the humanity of the characters. Cho is great, especially because he’s usually anchoring the film alone, looking at a computer screen. You see David change: At first he attempts to conceal how little he knows about his daughter, then he gradually drops all pretensions as fear and unease overwhelm him.
The movie also has funny things to say about the times we live in, down to the age gap when it comes to technology; see David frantically type “Tumbler” as he searches for Tumblr. Chaganty also comments on the weird landscape of social media, as #FindMargot becomes a trending topic and anonymous users debate John’s innocence and Margot’s possible motives.
It’s beautifully constructed and arranged, so much so that it’s disappointing when the movie turns to some final twists and revelations that are a little too convenient and conventional. It’s a traditional Hollywood ending tacked onto a movie that’s felt very un-Hollywood all the way through. Still, they wind up being mere speed bumps; by that point, Chaganty has us, and he’s not letting go until he’s finished.
Screen Gems presents a film directed by Aneesh Chaganty and written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian. Rated PG-13 (for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language). Running time: 102 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.