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John Cho movie Searching stares at screens in search of secrets

Review: Looking for a smart, suspenseful movie dealing with the internet in a clever, funny way? Your search is over.

Now playing: Watch this: Searching trailer: Thriller for the digital age

A child grows up in front of our eyes in smartphone photos, video chats and calendar reminders for the first day of school. This is how the new movie Searching begins, revealing a life through the digital ephemera of the information age. 

This opening introduces us to both the characters and the conceit of the film: It plays out entirely through the lens of laptop and phone screens. Everything we see, we see through a screen. We watch the cursor roam across a Mac desktop. We see the characters stare back at us as they chat in FaceTime. And plot twists are revealed by visits to Google, Instagram and Reddit.

Searching was co-written and directed by Aneesh Chaganty, who quit his job making adverts for Google to make the film. Originally entitled Search, it was rapturously received at the Sundance Film Festival, voted by audiences as the winner of the festival's Next category of innovative filmmaking. And in a quiet year for Sundance acquisitions, it was snapped up by Sony immediately. In theatres from 24 August, the film arrives just behind Crazy Rich Asians and Netflix's To All The Boys I've Loved Before, making this a good summer for diverse filmmakers.

Star Trek star John Cho plays the concerned parent who discovers his daughter is missing, and begins hunting for clues across her social media accounts. The more he pieces together about her life, the more he realises he doesn't know his child at all.

This isn't the first film to play out through the lens of a computer screen, following the effective one-screen horror movie Unfriended. But Searching mines the concept in all manner of ways, wringing layers of tension, humour and pathos from the various apps and software appearing onscreen. Think of it as Hitchcockian conceit -- complete with Hitchcock levels of suspense.

If that sounds like a gimmick, the opening moments put any concern to rest. Searching opens with a sequence spelling out the life of a family that's up there with the first 15 minutes of Pixar's Up in terms of emotion. The kid at the centre of the story, Margot, grows up in photos and videos, and there won't be a dry eye in the house. Then she disappears, leaving only a lingering ghostly online presence offering tantalising hints that conjure a spiralling sense of mystery and tension.

The film does stretch the on-screen concept a bit thin when characters venture away from laptops, forcing us to lean too heavily on unconvincing YouTube news reports for great chunks of exposition. But that's more than balanced by the way the ever-present blinking cursor of the search box and blank space of the message app almost become characters in their own right, patiently waiting for the characters to express emotions. 

We get to read between the lines of messages typed and never sent, opening a gateway into characters' true feelings and contrasting them with the faces they present in public and online.

Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian do a great job mining the premise, not just showing the search unfolding through screens but also examining some of the issues of the internet age, such as cyberbullying, online grooming and social media witch hunts. 

As well as being edge-of-the-seat tense and enormously funny, Searching offers an interesting subtext too. Set in San Jose, California, it's about a child literally missing in Silicon Valley, as well as also being metaphorically lost amid the social media products created there. It's a potent symbol of different generations connected and at the same time separated by the technology they use.

Searching is in theaters this weekend. It's worth the screen time.

For more about the film, check out our discussion with  the star, director and co-writers John Cho, Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian.

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