The latest installment in the burgeoning genre of social media cinema is “Searching,” by directorial newcomer Aneesh Chaganty. The constraint of the film is that it’s all told through screens — whether computer monitor or cell phone — a Hitchcockian thriller projected on Windows XP rather than celluloid.
In an opening montage of click-throughs to jpeg and avi files, we meet David Kim (John Cho), his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) and their daughter Margot (Michelle La). Margot is introduced as a child of the digital age — her every moment recorded, saved and rewatched on home computer. When we see — via the coldness of a calendar event being dropped in the recycling bin — that Pamela has succumbed to cancer, we wonder how David will interact with his daughter in real life.
And we never really find out. The action in “Searching” begins with Margot Facetiming her dad and letting him know she’ll be home late; he falls asleep and she never gets home. The computer screen shows that he’s missed three calls from her in the morning.
In his efforts to track her down in the subsequent hours, David learns Margot has been pocketing the money for her piano teacher and not attending lessons. She has not gone camping with her old friend, who actually might not be friends with her at all. Nor does he make any headway with the girl who was studying with Margot the night before — they are only acquaintances because the brat wants to get into Berkeley next year and the Asian-American girl is presumably smart.
When David files a missing person report, the case is assigned to Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), who devotedly Skypes with the sad dad at all hours. Messing certainly gets points for bravery, facing dozens of low-resolution shots with no makeup. We also absorb a lot of Facetime with David’s more relaxed brother Peter — he’s worried about his niece but at least he smokes weed and makes gumbo. Throughout the film, we mostly wish that David had upgraded to a fiber internet connection so his video chats were higher res.
After breaking into all of Margot’s private accounts, David and Rosemary use a Google doc to systematically stalk everyone on her contacts list; suspects emerge. There’s one boy who posted an eggplant emoji on her Instagram, and he looks like a total nightmare: swigging Jim Beam, taking bong hits, wearing one of those appalling floral print T-shirts.
Still, it’s all dead ends until David stumbles upon Margot’s YouCast account. It’s a livestreaming video site and, through the saved casts, he learns about his daughter’s chatting buddy fish_n_chips — who was perhaps doing some catfishing at a nearby lake. David suddenly appears outside at that spot, though he’s still presented onscreen via a live news webcast. There is a community-wide hunt for the young woman — with all the shouting, it seems a large-scale game of Margot Polo has broken out. But the girl is not found.
After spending a lot of time on Facebook and local news sites, things truly take a turn to darkness when David seeks additional clues on Reddit forums. To solve the mystery, he figures out that every person who appears in a browser must be catalogued — some faces we see again and again, raising suspicions of their involvement all the way to the final twist. Director Chaganty wrings every bit of drama he can from the plot and cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron whips up as much visual interest as he can from the opening of new tabs against that damned green field desktop image. “Searching” is an affecting tale with an amusing premise — but it’s an altogether exhausting film.
‘Searching’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 1:42. Visit www.cinemawest.com.