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SEARCHING: Confined to a computer screen

You might think a movie that confines itself to what you see on a computer screen would create a certain restlessness or boredom.

But if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

A little claustrophobia -- maybe. Some awkward plot mechanics to accommodate the medium -- definitely. But boredom? In the case of “Searching” -- not for one minute.

This effective, low-key thriller from fledgling director Aneesh Chaganty focuses on a widower whose daughter goes missing after an all-night “study session” at a friend’s.

Despite their still-painful loss, David (John Cho) has never communicated much with his apparently well-behaved high-schooler; when she disappears, her left-behind laptop reveals a slightly uncomfortable secret life that points to some disturbing possibilities.

Since most of us spend much daily time staring at a screen, it takes a while to notice that the film isn’t showing anything but texts, searches, podcasts, posts, live streams and video chats. Surprisingly, this winds up engaging us even more fully, because so much of the film’s material is presented through words and visuals. You literally cannot look away.

Absorption is aided by solid work from Cho, perhaps best known as Sulu in the recent “Star Trek” films -- though he also played the first of the titular pair in the cult-fave “Harold and Kumar” series. According to Wikipedia, Cho is the first Asian-American to land the lead in a mainstream Hollywood thriller, and he’s certainly the right man for the job. His likable persona keeps us wrapped up in his quest even as we see that David should have had more heart-to-hearts with Margot -- and that his subsequent hot-headed overreactions are actually harming the investigation. (Dad’s flaws and errors are subtly stressed by repeated use of the tune from an old hymn called “God Be Merciful to Me.”)

Debra Messing (“Will and Grace”) is empathetic and convincing as a detective working the case, and Michelle La is terrific in her few brief scenes as Margot; she sure conveys a world of emotion with a glance, an expression or a simple gesture.

The script is also solid, as the case goes in a direction no one could foresee; yet even as these new developments pile up, Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian begin to abandon realism and believability. The last 20 minutes are especially tough to swallow, despite the two detectives who served as consultants on the film.

Fortunately, by the time this tale flies off the rails, you’ll be so hooked that you’re simply forced to hang on tight for the rest of the admittedly bumpy ride.

For the most part then, “Searching” is a cleverly designed thriller, and it ought to have a decent shelf life once now that it’s on streaming and DVD.

In which case, it’ll be more than a little ironic if lots of folks watch it on a laptop or tablet.


directed by Aneesh Chaganty

Run time: 102 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language

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