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story.lead_photo.caption Widower David (John Cho) frantically looks for online clues to his 16-year- old daughter’s disappearance in Aneesh Chaganty’s cyber-thriller Searching.

As you might have already surmised, either through personal experience or watching friends struggle, parenthood ain't easy. Constant stress, anxiety, and damage-control; medical intervention; social media crisis coordination; sleeplessness, loss of appetite -- all resulting in an eventual surrender to the immovable burden of responsibility, like a cast-iron yoke, permanently affixed to your shoulders.

Different parental generations have devised their own ways of coping with this overwhelming onslaught of obligation, the weight of total accountability: The '70s parents shifted the focus to themselves, and let the kids figure it out on their own; the '80s parents threw money and shiny objects at their progeny, and hoped that would suffice; '90s parents took to the Internet to provide relief.

Searching

86 Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, Sara Sohn

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

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

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Since 2007, and the launch of the iPhone, however, the world of parenting changed overnight. What seemed like manna from heaven at the time -- if you happened to have a young child, you know the joy of handing him your phone to entertain and quiet him -- has become much more problematic as those first iPhone babies evolved into teens, obsessed with social media and their own personal branding, and ever-evolving technology that leaves even the most capable adults in the dust.

It has become all too easy to succumb and let your child be raised by fiber-optic bandwidth and endless memes. As much as we may be referred to as the "helicopter parent" generation, we've watched as our precious bundles of joy have become elongated, throaty landsharks, devouring everything in their path and hiding themselves behind layers and layers of convoluted app-driven media, living their lives out in a distant, entirely theoretical frontier we have come to know less and less about.

This is the conundrum that poor widower David (John Cho) faces, when his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La), suddenly vanishes one Friday night after meeting with a study group somewhere near their house in San Jose, Calif.

Growing ever more frantic, David tries to reach any of her friends, but can't. Convinced she has disappeared, he calls the cops to file a report, getting help in the form of Detective Vick (Debra Messing), who takes to the search with purposeful focus, but not before he has to come to some sobering realities about his job performance as a parent.

As befitting the generation it dramatizes, Aneesh Chaganty's clever film takes place almost entirely on David's desktop -- via phone, FaceTime, Twitter, Tumblr, apps, email, and, in some cases, security cams, and news reports on his screen -- a sort of take on the found footage genre that became so popular a decade or two ago. The conceit adds a layer of difficulty to the storytelling that Chaganty (who co-wrote the script) often gracefully uses to his advantage.

Before rejecting the idea out of hand, consider the film's opening montage, in which we meet the family -- David, his wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn), and Margot -- over the first years of Margot's life, via photos in the hospital when Margot is born, videos of Pamela teaching her piano, first days of school photos, and perusal of email in boxes where Pamela gets lab results back that indicate she has lymphoma.

Over the course of just a few minutes of screen time, we watch as the family rallies around her remission, only to be dragged back down by her relapse, and eventual death, an elegant recap of devastation, much of which left to our own imaginations, pinged along the way by precise computer evoked detail. In its way, evoking the infamously sad and beguiling opening montage to Pixar's Up.

With David growing ever more frantic, he begins an intense pursuit of his daughter, in large part by opening her own laptop, and logging into her social media outlets (utilizing a series of lost-password retrievals). Once there, he slowly begins to piece together parts of the puzzle, in the process realizing how little he seems to know his daughter. At one point, near frazzled by the stress, and after her car is found sunken in a nearby lake, he confronts his brother (Joseph Lee) as possibly being the murderer, and becomes further unhinged when another online bro-troll claims her sexual conquest.

Indeed, the film, which is otherwise steadfastly focused on David and his sleuthing, does take a short detour into the volatile hive-mind of Internet youth when kids from her school who seemed to have absolutely no interest in her at first, use her growing notoriety as a stepping stone for their own expanding list of followers, swelling the ranks by pledging their grief and misery at Margot's vanishing: a fickle and opportunistic craft of crows, cawing for popularity and likes at nearly any moral cost.

For the most part, however, Chaganty's film avoids such social commentary in favor of relishing its mystery, clever enough to plant clues in such a way that you can actually spot many of them first, if you're looking closely enough. For a while, it works surprisingly well, powered in no small part by Cho's vulnerable performance. As the human face of the film, if often only rendered on smaller screens looking pensively into his phone, Cho has to carry much of the narrative on his back, even as the screen is filled with competing windows filled with vast accumulations of information.

Everything works so well, in fact, when the film begins to seriously falter in the second half of the third act, plot holes going from pinpricks to gaping maws, narrative believability taking a long backseat to popcorn efficiency, it feels like a greater loss than you would have expected, going in.

By the time David figures everything out, and learns the perils of not paying enough attention to your child, you realize how slack Chaganty has let the narrative reigns drop. You can't blame him for needing to arrive, but after taking such care with the first two acts, it's a shame he couldn't have held them taut all the way into the stable.

Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) leads the police investigation into the disappearance of David’s (John Cho) tech-savvy 16-year-old daughter in Searching.

MovieStyle on 08/31/2018

Print Headline: Searching

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