Searching is a new kidnapping mystery that takes place entirely on the screen of its protagonist’s laptop. I’m glad I didn’t know that going in, because it sounds more like a cheap gimmick than it actually is, and if I’d skipped it I would’ve missed the ultimate evidence of John Cho’s remarkable evolution into a capable leading man. Cho has never been bad, but he’s so good here that it counts as a break out.
Cho, who we first loved as MILF Guy #2 in American Pie and later as Harold in Harold and Kumar, grows all the way up in the role first of loving then of heartbroken father, Peter Kim. Cho performs frequently without benefit of a scene partner in Searching, adding an additional degree of difficulty to an already defining role. Searching has a big performance and a big gimmick, and it’s hard to say which is the bigger discovery.
Right, so the laptop thing. It’s a conceit that combines Skype calls, texts, Facetime, web searches, and news videos into a kind of single-location thriller that isn’t really single location at all, because it’s flexible enough to allow for anything you might see on a laptop screen — which is pretty much anything these days, from on-location news footage exposition to private moments of introspection. Searching attempts all of them at one point or another. It uses this screen-time approach to set up the premise, in which Cho, as suburban San Jose single dad David Kim, texts and Facetimes his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (played by Michelle La) to ask about school and check up on her study group. Then, after a few missed calls in the middle of the night (we can see Cho sleeping in the Skype window as Margot’s calls go unanswered), Margot vanishes.
In trying to provide all the information he can to the police — and in particular to a detective named Vick, played by Debra Messing — Kim realizes he actually doesn’t know that much about his daughter’s life (as with To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Margot’s mother has died young and persists only in loving flashbacks). He’s left to piece together her life from her social media footprint, in many ways getting to know her for the first time only now that she may be gone. This includes cyberstalking her circle of friends, frenemies and acquaintances, such as “DerekEllis6969,” who come to life, often hilariously, through juvenile Instagram comments and Snapchat videos. This is just a logical evolution of storytelling, as WeedLordBonerHitler and MAGAmom_420 have occasionally made their way into the mainstream political debate.
The entirety of Searching takes place within this laptop ecosystem, which would certainly qualify it as shtick, or a formalistic gimmick. The danger of any formalistic gimmick is that its efficacy as a marketing hook or press release peg will outstrip its ability to actually convey ideas. Like found footage, I’m not entirely convinced that Searching needed to stay inside the laptop once the aesthetic had been established, but this gimmick has practical utility that goes beyond artistic peacocking.