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Dustin Putman

Searching  (2018)
3½ Stars
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty.
Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee, Sara Sohn, Kya Dawn Lau, Megan Liu, Alex Jayne Go, Dominic Hoffman, Connor McRaith.
2018 – 102 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, August 24, 2018.
"Searching" is dynamically mounted and intensely gripping, a missing-person's thriller told entirely through electronic devices. Aneesh Chaganty, making his auspicious directorial debut, is in full control as he economically immerses the viewer in the lives of a family met with a tragic loss before hurling them down a different path—and a different kind of loss. Thoroughly crowd-pleasing and blessed with ingenuity, to boot, it's no surprise the film garnered both the Audience Award and Alfred P. Sloane Feature Film Prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Two years ago, David Kim (John Cho) and 15-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) lost their beloved wife and mother Pam (Sara Sohn) to cancer. They've attempted to adjust to their new normal, but when Margot fails to return home following a late-night study group, David is thrown into a panic as he attempts to track her down. Did she run away? Was she abducted? With Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) leading the case, David delves into Margot's hard drive and social media footprint. What he finds leaves him dismayed; prior to her disappearance, he didn't really know anything about his daughter's life.

True-crime enthusiasts and armchair detectives will be in heaven watching "Searching." While the concept of unfolding the story primarily over a computer screen is less innovative in the wake of the opening act of 2010's "Catfish," as well as 2014's "Open Windows," 2015's "Unfriended," and 2018's "Unfriended: Dark Web," writer-director Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian use it in a natural, dramatically sound way. Never do the proceedings feel derivative, the sly, labyrinthine puzzle pieces of the narrative scattered and then concurrently pieced back together by David, Vick, and the audience as they edge closer to figuring out what happened to Margot.

Supporting turns from Michelle La, as daughter Margot, and Sara Sohn (2015's "Furious 7"), as the late Pam, are warm and inviting enough early on that the viewer instantly becomes invested in them. When they are gone, their absence is felt. Driving the story are two emotionally riveting performances from John Cho (2016's "Star Trek Beyond"), his David doing everything in his power to learn about Margot and the parts of herself she has kept hidden from him, and Debra Messing (2008's "Nothing Like the Holidays"), her sympathetic Detective Rosemary Vick identifying with David's struggles as a single parent.

"Searching" is an urgent and unnerving masterclass in creating tension through minimalism, dripping with the peril of what has already taken place and what may occur next. Each moment seemingly counts, and while the core timeline of events is spread over nearly a week, it has a real-time investigative feel which expertly draws one into its intricate web. That director Aneesh Chaganty rarely tips his hat, trusting his audience to pick up each clue along the way, makes the experience all the more intoxicating. Strip away the taut genre elements, and what is left is the affecting story of a father and daughter struggling to find their way after their familial unit is forever ripped apart. The film concludes on a note both richly satisfying and poignant, but not before leading toward the kind of twists that genuinely surprise and, best of all, play fair. "Searching" is sure to remain one of 2018's best and smartest thrillers.
© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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