The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A father faces a nightmare in the screen-based thriller ‘Searching’

John Cho plays a father looking for his missing daughter in “Searching.” (Sebastian Baron/Screen Gems)
(2.5 stars)

In the classic 1956 western “The Searchers,” an obsessed loner scours the wilderness in search of his abducted niece. “Searching” has pretty much the same idea, except that the man on the quest is the father rather than the uncle. Oh, and the wilderness is the Internet.

Most of this clever but silicon-chip-thin movie transpires on a computer or cellphone screen, although eventually director Aneesh Chaganty is forced to add TV news footage and surveillance video. The setup is essentially the same as in the “Unfriended” horror franchise, which, like this film, was also produced by stylistically innovative Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (“Night Watch”).

David Kim and his daughter Margot live in San Jose, where the father (John Cho) is some sort of tech worker. The movie introduces the Korean American family through its computerized memories, marking 15 years of history with ever-changing operating systems and images of the four different actresses who play Margot as a child. For the Kims, life is all piano lessons, smiley photos and digital-age home movies — until Mom succumbs to cancer.

Left with each other, David and Margot (Michelle La) seem to be coping well. Then one night, the 16-year-old doesn’t come home, and David discovers that her piano teacher and supposed friends don’t really know much about her. He hacks into her laptop and learns that he doesn’t, either.

David calls the police and is soon working with a detective (Debra Messing) who lets him be involved in the investigation. But Dad and cop fall out, and David goes rogue. He pursues some false leads, but it’s clear that this father will ultimately know best.

David explores a multiverse of programs and apps, some real and some fictional. Yet he never ventures into the dark web. The scariest place he goes is a chat room where some users assume false identities. Their guile is hardly a surprise, since Margot’s high school is known as the “Home of the Catfish.”

That joke is one of many wink-wink asides that viewers may miss as they try to discern which of multiple computer windows deserve their attention. Chaganty (who used to make Google commercials) and a deft editing team fill the screen with text, video and multiple images, which spin by faster and faster as David’s concern turns to panic. The profusion of electronic stimuli could bewilder even a Silicon Valley Sherlock Holmes.

Like most mysteries, this one relies heavily on coincidental discoveries, even if they arrive via Gmail or FaceTime, rather than more traditional means. But the plot’s contrivances are less problematic than the movie’s insistence on maintaining its artifice even after it becomes a hindrance. In one sequence, David sets up surveillance cameras just so we can see what’s about to happen through digital media, rather than directly.

Despite the high-tech trappings, “Searching” ends with a conventional payoff. It’s an outcome that could have been more compelling if the filmmakers had dropped their multi-screen gimmick and depicted the story’s emotional climax without a filter.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material, some drug and sexual references, strong language and a child in peril. 101 minutes.