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Oh what a tangled www...

Thriller 'Searching' plays out on a laptop screen

Leave it to a former Google employee to make a film like "Searching," with a title that puns on the internet as a portal to knowledge while describing a father's desperate hunt for his missing daughter. Co-writer/director Aneesh Chaganty used to direct ads for Google, and in many respects his thriller "Searching" plays like an upbeat tutorial on a suite of useful online tools. But it's also, at times, a consideration of the ways we have ceded our relationships and memories and secrets to a violable cyberspace.

Like 2014's "Unfriended," also produced by Timur Bekmambetov, "Searching" runs on a budget-friendly gimmick: Everything we see and hear comes from a computer, the film screen given over to a Mac screen.

John Cho ("Star Trek") stars as David Kim, single father to 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) and living in San Jose. In the prologue, viewers learn how this loving family lost a wife and mother (Sara Sohn's Pam) to lymphoma. In the wake of losing Pam, deep-feeling David turns all of his considerable emotional energy to supporting-- in some ways, smothering -- his daughter, their mutual grief ever-present but unaddressed.

Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian wisely balance the coolness of technology with the warmth of poignancy at multiple points in their story. In another example at the film's outset, David repeatedly lays into Margot for forgetting to take out the trash, only to realize that she has gone missing and nothing could be more trivial than that minor offense. Thirty-seven hours later, and no closer to answers, David becomes the key investigator, tracking his daughter's online footprints and discovering how little he understood her, adding pain and confusion to his desperation and trauma. Debra Messing's "Silicon Valley Police Department" detective invites David's digital legwork, but comes to view it as a liability when emotion clouds the father's judgment.

One can't blame Chaganty for certain cheats (like how often and how prominently we see Cho's face as he stares into his computer), while others (a third-act reliance on TV news reports watched on the computer) strain the film's concept. These are, after all, exceptions to the rule of a mostly ingenious and well-executed deep dive into amateur computer forensics, the titillating and terrifying privacy violation of stalking someone through their endless daily interactions with a laptop, desktop or phone.

Often this means turning the mundane suspenseful, such as a roundabout password recovery that unlocks Dad's access to his daughter's private emails and Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. Instant messages, calendar items, eBay purchases, YouTube videos, and online banking records contribute to the agonizing piecing together of an urgent puzzle. "Searching" offers evidence of our social dependence on technology and the ways in which it uniquely unleashes society's collective id (the vile vox populi of internet commenters, whose anonymity frees them of responsibility), adding sideswipes at social media hypocrisy and media circuses like TMZ.

If "Searching" plays fair and makes it possible to spot a key clue in advance, its twisty thrills also culminate in a climactic pileup, a resolution that strains credibility and lets much of the air out of what has come before. Still, in concert with a dynamic leading performance by Cho, Chaganty manages an engaging popcorn suspense picture that also speaks to how technology enables and frustrates us in some of the most important moments of our lives.

— Peter Canavese

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