'Searching' Review: An Electrifying Thriller That Unfolds Entirely On Computer Screens [Sundance]

When 16-year-old high school student Margot Kim (Michelle La) goes missing, her father (John Cho) mounts a desperate attempt to find her in Searching, a fast-paced, nail-biting mystery that plays out entirely on computer screens. While the 2015 horror movie Unfriended unfolded on one screen, Search expands the gimmick to multiple computers and cell phones, creating an immersive experience that's instantly engaging. This stylistic choice is executed to absolute perfection by first-time filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, who uses it to draw a clever juxtaposition of our online lives and our daily reality while telling a dynamic story that grabs you from the first minute and doesn't let go until its frantic conclusion. This movie rules.

Through a prologue that rivals the one in Pixar's Up, Chaganty quickly establishes the Kim family – David (Cho), Pam (Sara Sohn), and their daughter Margot – through a Windows computer. As each person logs into his or her personal account on their shared computer, we learn about them through their desktop wallpapers, YouTube videos (example: Margot taking piano lessons from her mom), and personal photos. But as my earlier reference to Up implies, one of these characters isn't around for long: as Margot grows up, we follow Pam's valiant battle with lymphoma until she ultimately succumbs to the disease. Chaganty imparts this information through a deleted calendar notification (the heartbreaking "Mom comes home!") and a first day of school photo that features only Margot and David; all three family members had been present in the photo for every preceding grade.

Once we catch up to modern day, the action begins: Margot doesn't come home one night after a study group meeting. We've seen through texts and FaceTime calls that she and her dad have a decent relationship, so David isn't worried at first. But when Margot doesn't answer his texts or phone calls, the seriousness of the situation starts to hit home, and he and the empathetic Detective Vick (Debra Messing) begin sifting through digital clues on Margot's computer in an attempt to track her down. Google maps, streaming sites, videos of local newscasts, and even app-controlled security footage are all used to terrific effect.

The film has a voyeuristic quality to it, and it's kind of unnerving to learn how much can be gleaned about someone through their digital fingerprints. "I didn't know my daughter," David confesses to Vick, and as the story progresses, the movie's twists and turns present some pretty horrific implications for what may have happened to her – including a realization that someone close to her may be a prime suspect. The narrative itself isn't the most original thing you've ever seen – if I had one complaint, it'd be that the story may rely a bit too much on pretty conventional mystery tropes. But execution goes a very long way, and those minor nitpicks are totally obliterated by the sheer audacity of this movie and the seamless way Chaganty extracts drama from tools that are cold and uncaring by design.

You might think that watching a story play out across screens might put you at a distance from the events being depicted, and perhaps that'd be the case if the film were in less capable hands. But there are plenty of legitimately moving moments here, as well as scenes of suspense that I'd put up against just about anything else. (A live-stream is stopped due to buffering at precisely the right instant for maximum effectiveness, a tactic that's thankfully only used once.) This is largely a showcase for the always-terrific John Cho, who capitalizes in the best way by delivering a personal, heart-wrenching performance as a father whose desperation becomes more palpable with every passing minute.

But more than anything, this is a coming out party for Aneesh Chaganty, an exciting young filmmaker whose next project will be at the very top of my most anticipated upcoming movies list. He's able to elevate this story (which he co-wrote with Sev Ohanian) far beyond its central gimmick and deliver one of the most formally daring pieces of entertainment I've seen in a long time. An electrifying, emotional, and wildly entertaining thriller, Searching is my favorite film of the Sundance Film Festival so far.

/Film Rating: 10 out of 10