The first time, to my incomplete knowledge, that the gimmick of showing a horror movie entirely through the form of what happens on a computer screen was in the 2012 found footage anthology V/H/S, in the segment "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger", and it has been a few times since: 2013's The Den, 2014's Unfriended and its 2018 in-name-only sequel. There are perhaps other examples, but the ones I have seen all share one important characteristic: they are bad. And now here comes Searching, a film that has near enough the same gimmick, and which finally demonstrates that the way to make such a film is good is, simply enough, to cheat like a motherfucker.

Okay, so that's not fair. To say that Seaching "cheats" would be to assume that it wants to play the Unfriended game in the first place, and there is in fact no reason to make this assumption. Unfriended and its ilk are real-time, first person affairs, in which the entire film consists of watching somebody else's computer screen, which fills the film frame. Searching isn't in real time, involves multiple devices - though they're always being looked at by David Kim (John Cho) - and most importantly does not at all indulge in a 1=1 relationship between the movie screen and the computer screen. Throughout the film, the camera (or, at least, the "camera") pans across the screen, zooms in to salient details, cuts to show important details in close-up and then cuts over to show David's face, on whichever of the many video chat apps he conveniently leaves open, as he responds with grave concern to the thing he's just found online or in his e-mail.* It is unmistakably a movie, with none of the voyeuristic quality the other films this resembles possess; this is amplified by the presence of Cho as the main character and Debra Messing as Detective Vick, the woman he constantly exchanges clips and e-mails and clues with.

Lo and behold, when you make a movie like a movie, it is better than a movie that isn't like a movie. Which isn't to say that Searching doesn't get mileage out of its screen-based gimmick, for in fact that is somewhat the whole point of the thing. See, David's daughter Margot (Michelle La) has gone missing, and with absolutely nothing resembling a lead, David has to break into her social media accounts and try to work out what she's been up to and who she's been in contact with. The film is very much about a father who only sort of understands these Facebooks and Twitters and Snapchats (he at one point does a Google search for "Tumbler" and I fell in love with him very much for doing that), trying to blindly swim through the murk of a modern teenager's online footprint. Take out the thriller elements entirely, and there's still a pretty swell film about the generation gap as it relates to internet technology and how parents understanding their children in this or any other era. And Cho does very fine work expressing that, allowing bafflement and disorientation to keep gliding across his face in some very impressive, naturalistic ways (this is, among its other charms, the best he's ever been in a movie), all the more impressive given the extremely weird way in which the film was shot.

All that being said, this is a thriller, and a pretty taut one. Its one-of-a-kind ability to restrict audience knowledge to the perspective of its lead character is used marvelously, keeping us guessing and lost, and moreover constricting the guesses we can make to the increasingly demented logic of a father who is getting less and less rational by the hour. I don't want to overstate things, but it's pretty freaking neat how the film uses the audience's objective sense against us: we know how to look at computers, we know how to parse the data that comes to us off the internet, and the film keeps tricking us by filtering that data through the headspace of a man that we never precisely see, so we can pretty easily forget that he's the one handling the search engine. And this, in a larger way, is also used in the construction of some good fake-out plot developments in the last third, as we start to suppose that, since we know how thrillers work, we can grasp where this one is going. Indeed, I will happily admit that the resolution of Searching caught me completely off guard, and not even entirely because it's a huge pile of arbitrary bullshit.

Though it is arbitrary bullshit, and if there's a single reason that I feel compelled to cut my praise short at 3.5 stars, it's because I find the pileup of stuff at the end to be ridiculous and borderline character assassination.

Anyway, the film is a good, crisp, gnarly thriller, with exactly the right amount of human interest for it to pretend to be more than just a grubby shocker. The film opens with a legitimately shocking montage, shocking at least in that one would never expect it to open a genre film: we see the Kim family laptop, an early-2000s Windows machine, as it starts to acquire SD video and then HD video of Margot at various young ages, doted upon by her father and mother Pam (Sara Sohn), the images always scrupulously mimicking one or the other of her parents sorting through the data as they upload it; along the way, Pam gets leukemia, recovers, and then gets it again, with some very disarming grace notes used to dramatise this (the best, by far: an unseen Margot enters "mom comes home" on her calendar, then moves it later by a month, and then right clicks and pauses for a gutwrenching moment before hitting "delete"). All why a lilting piece of music by Torin Borrowdale, good for both frivolous cheer and fuzzy melancholy depending on the tempo, throws us around. Basically, it's the opening to Up, attached to the opening of a gimmick-driven kidnapping thriller, and it is very fucking weird.

And yet, too, it is fucking effective. The film dives through tones quite recklessly, but somehow it always works. Possibly it's because the film so perfectly mimics the process of digging through old computer files, with the whiplash of memory cues that can trigger; possibly because first-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty is a wizard. Whatever the case, the film is a kaleidoscopic thing, charming and sad here, tense and confusing there, and paced like a cheetah. It ultimately amounts to not much more than some well-timed thrills, and the form almost by definition makes it a "wait for streaming" kind of proposition, but I was more than happy to be jerked around so expertly for so long, and if Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian could get this kind of affective quality from such a ludicrous, artificial conceit (plus, Chaganty has spoken in intereviews about how laborious and even unpleasant it was to assemble the film from its component parts), I can only imagine what they might get up to now that they've got that first feature under their belt.

*I am perhaps - nay, I am certainly a technophobic Luddite. Even so, I really, deeply, on a primordial & spiritual level, don't understand why somebody would prefer to talk on video chat. When it's movies about teens and twentysomethings, I can swallow it as The Kids These Days, but David is on the backside of 40, and so is the police detective he mostly converses with, and I just don't know if I believe at all that they wouldn't just talk on the phone like normal people. Which, to be sure, they do sometimes, when it is most dramatically convenient.