There was a time when I didn’t pay much attention to John Cho the actor. His “Harold & Kumar” comedies never landed with me and I was even less impressed with his “American Pie” work. He’s fine in the rebooted “Star Trek” series but not exactly a standout. That all changed with his stellar performance in last year’s soulful character drama “Columbus”.
In “Searching” Cho is handed an even meatier role and he doesn’t disappoint. He plays David Kim, a widowed father of 16-year-old Margot (Michelle La). To David everything seems right with his daughter. She is a happy girl with lots of friends who enjoys piano lessons and attends study groups with classmates. But David is living in a bubble brought on by his own grief. His image of Margot slowly comes into question after she disappears without a trace.
David files a missing person’s report and Detective Rosemary Vick is assigned to the case. She handles the ground investigation and tasks David with searching for Margot’s digital footprints. This feeds the film’s big trick – every scene is through some form of digital communication. Skype, Facebook, YouTube, FaceTime, video conferencing, streaming services, security cameras, news feeds, etc. The entire movie is shot within this digital framing.
Director Aneesh Chaganty (who also co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian) deserves a ton of credit for not only keeping things coherent but also steadily ramping up the tension. It’s a tricky storytelling mechanic that comes across as much more than a gimmick. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it the found footage model for the modern era, but it has the same satisfying effect as the earliest found footage movies.
If you’ve seen the trailer you get an idea of how the story is pieced together. With the bulk of the action taking place on a laptop or smartphone screen, it takes some crafty direction and snappy editing to pull it off. Equally impressive is how the movie never tips its hand. David trails a smattering of clues throughout Margot’s digital profile leading to several red herrings and a few meaningful revelations. But it isn’t until the finale when things are spelled out for us, perhaps a little too neatly, but still with good effect.
“Searching” is a fantastic debut effort for Chaganty who gives us more than a simple gimmick film. It’s a riveting thriller with interesting things to say about the online lives we live. It’s also another showcase for John Cho who carries the film through his character’s intensifying stages of emotion and desperation. I was wrong to shortchange the guy. Cho is a legitimate leading actor who earns the praise he has been receiving.
VERDICT – 4 STARS