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"SEARCHING"
(2018) (John Cho, Debra Messing) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramatic Thriller: A worried father goes through his daughter's online history in hopes of uncovering a clue that might help reveal why the teen has gone missing.
PLOT:
David Kim (JOHN CHO) is a man whose joy in life seems to have been yanked away by the lymphoma death of his wife, Pam (SARA SOHN). Their 15-year-old daughter, Margot (MICHELLE LA), still lives at home with David, and he gets after her for not taking out the trash and such.

When he discovers she's failed to do so again after spending time at a friend's study group, he's miffed, and becomes more so when she doesn't return his calls or text messages. That, coupled with her having tried to call and video chat with him in the middle of the preceding night and now having been silent for hours causes him to worry and he eventually calls the police.

Det. Rosemary Vick (DEBRA MESSING) ends up on the missing person's case and begins investigating. As does David as he starts going through his daughter's laptop -- mysteriously left at home -- and begins contacting everyone he knows, including his brother, Peter (JOSEPH LEE), as well as her piano teacher, other parents and so on.

Digging through her text messages, social media accounts and more, he follows leads that sometimes give him hope and at others cause him greater concern, all while starting to believe that he didn't really know his daughter like he thought. With days passing by and Det. Vick doing her best, David wavers between thinking his daughter has run away from home and that something bad has happened to her.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
In the old days, when kids misbehaved in one way or another, teachers, school officials and even parents warned that such behavior would "go on your permanent record." It seemed like a legit warning back then, although I don't recall ever wondering or hearing other kids back in the day debating exactly what the "permanent record" was, who administered it, who had access to it, how often it was updated and -- more importantly -- whether it truly was permanent.

Granted, this was back in days of the Nixon Administration and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover -- both ultimately revealed to having been keeping records on their enemies, so maybe the threat was based in reality. Of course, I doubt many young kids back then were on their watch lists and thus their "records" either didn't exist or had nothing in them. Or so we hope...

Nowadays, however, and since kids seem to engage in online activities more than anything else, there is reason for some concern about the permanency of their behavior. After all, pretty much everything they do -- browsing the web (including their search history), exchanging text messages and engaging in any and all forms of social media -- is likely captured for all eternity, and it wouldn't take much for a hacker or even a government official if so ordered to pull and assemble all of that information and thus create a permanent record of online behavior.

That does already happen when people commit a newsworthy crime and authorities, friends and family go back through such online history looking for clues that might explain the hows and whys of what happened. And such research certainly occurs when people, especially kids, go missing, be that through simply running away to being abducted to vanishing via some sort of accident.

That's the gist of "Searching," where John Cho plays the widowed father of a teen (Michelle La) who goes missing. Increasingly worried and then frantic about what might have happened to her, he starts going through her online accounts including, yes, searching through her search history as well as social media accounts, text message history and so on.

There are various ways in which writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian could have told this tale, but they've chosen one that's sort of come into vogue of recent where everything we see unfolds on a computer screen. Having seen about a gazillion or two movies over my lifetime, I'm certainly game for filmmakers to come up with new and innovative ways to tell their cinematic tales.

That said, I'm no fan of the found footage format (especially if it's done in the uber-shaky handheld style) and despite its recent introduction and the small number of samples, I've already grown somewhat tired of the "as seen on a computer screen" style. Of course, some of that could stem from the two most notable entries of that -- the horror/suspense film "Unfriended" and its sequel that came out earlier this summer -- and the fact that they weren't that good.

So, once I realized that such early footage in this offering wasn't just an introductory gimmick, I grew concerned that we might have another such subpar offering, especially considering its late summer release spot (which has traditionally been the dumping ground season for Hollywood studios).

Thankfully, my fears were unfounded as this turns out to be a pretty slick and efficient thriller that focuses on modern-day amateur detective tools and just so happens to take place on a computer screen (to be accurate, it occurs across several, but that's the overall point of focus of the camera from start to finish).

And that start begins with a quickly moving montage of video clips and such showing the happy family over time, interrupted by the mom getting cancer, going into remission, and then ultimately losing the battle upon its return. It's a swift-moving but effective introduction to the characters and gets us to care about them, both based on the tragedy that occurs before the main story begins and then once the girl vanishes.

While the format might seem set to create a feeling of confinement and repetitive tedium, Chaganty and Ohanian manage to keep things compelling and engaging as more clues are unearthed and as everything starts to fit together likely a finely woven puzzle. What helps make things interesting is standard human nature to initially take what we read as the truth, all of which takes our protagonist down various paths of concern, guilt, anger and flawed assumptions.

I can't say much more without giving things away, but I felt the latter could have been pushed along to more logical (and likely tragic) extremes to ratchet up the suspense and thematic message of the consequences of jumping to unfounded and incomplete conclusions. Even so, what's present works, although the final "whodunit" and "what really happened" explanation might be the longest ever put on film.

Overall, I liked the pic quite a bit, yet hope it doesn't end up as one of the first of many of what could be a heavily copied and imitated cinematic storytelling form. If it helps spawn that, it's going to go on the film's permanent record. "Searching" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed August 23, 2018 / Posted August 31, 2018


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