It's called 'screenlife': a growing group of horror and thriller flicks that trap their contents within a computer screen. Characters send emails, chat via video and text, scroll through social media feeds and Google whatever the narrative calls for, as viewers watch every move of the mouse cursor. The name is fitting for other reasons, too. Who doesn't live the bulk of their lives in front of a screen these days, after all? Indeed, in so simply yet savvily reflecting society's modern-day reality, this new filmmaking approach is more than just a gimmick — especially when it's put to such excellent use as seen in Searching.
At first, the Kim family computer acts as a time capsule, exposing nearly two decades of memories as David (John Cho) and his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) raise their daughter Margot. Through calendar reminders, emails and clips, the audience witnesses intimate and everyday moments, sees tragedy strike, and watches as David and a now 16-year-old Margot (Michelle La) struggle to cope in the aftermath. But more drama is set to follow. When Margot doesn't come home from a study session one evening and doesn't show up at school the next day either, David is frantic. Her laptop now becomes a sleuthing tool, as he uses every online means at his disposal to track down Margot's whereabouts, both with and without the help of police detective Vick (Debra Messing).
A missing person thriller, Searching's premise has been done many times before, furnishing episodes of every procedural crime TV series that you can think of. While first-time writer-director Aneesh Chaganty and his co-scribe Sev Ohanian bring their own twists and turns, the essence of their narrative remains familiar. That's where the film's use of technology comes in. As both easily foreseeable and completely unexpected developments unravel on Searching's screen within a screen, each clue, keystroke and cascaded window feels urgent and immediate. Each choice and reaction that David makes, too. The movie has more than a few smart things to say about humanity's constantly online status, but it's smartest touch is using its immersive style to heighten the tension and suspense — and, in moments of extreme pressure, to show its protagonist reacting as everyone else would.
Searching's casting proves as clever as its central conceit, as Cho emphatically demonstrates. Fourteen years after Harold and Kumar went searching for stoner snacks, it's long been a given that the actor should be a huge star. Searching isn't the only recent entry on his resume to back up that point (see his stellar work in Gemini and Columbus), but it is the biggest. The film is trained on his anxious face for the bulk of its 102 minutes, framing it close and tight via FaceTime videos, and he makes the most of every moment. It's not just worry and fear flickering in his darting eyes as David scrambles to find his daughter, but the dawning realisation that the computer knows more about Margot than anyone, even a father, could hope to.
Known for Nightwatch, Daywatch, Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Russian-Kazakh filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov is the other crucial aspect to Searching. Here, he's in the producer's chair, adding another screenlife flick to his growing haul. He was behind the surprisingly effective Unfriended, and directed this year's other great computer screen-based effort, Profile, which follows a journalist trying to befriend a Syrian ISIS recruiter. Bekmambetov's studio also created the software that gives these movies their visual language, and has publicly said that he'd like to make 50 of them a year. Basically, the filmmaker is turning what might've been a flash-in-the-pan idea into its own genre, letting each subsequent entry illustrate the style's worth, effectiveness and astute capabilities. With Searching, he makes a resounding case. Even when it serves up a few over-the-top leaps, keeping your eyes glued to a computer has rarely been more riveting.