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Searching, a movie puzzle about digital isolation, is a bit of a mess. See it anyway.

Searching, starring John Cho, is an excellent conversation starter. It’s a less effective movie.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Searching, the much-anticipated John Cho vehicle about a frantic dad forced to use digital clues to help find his missing daughter, is a fairly ambitious, high-concept thriller — one that’s turning heads even before it hits theaters nationwide this weekend. Over a limited opening this past weekend, it had the strongest per-theater showing of any film in release.

And it’s easy to see why. Written and directed by Aneesh Chaganty in his feature debut, and featuring a fantastic, grief-laden performance from Cho, Searching delivers on what must be one of the nightmares of modern parenting: the idea of your child having a hidden double life on the internet — a life that is both unknown and unknowable.

Unfortunately, Searching falls flat in its final leg. An ambitious, well-executed premise, a fabulous turn from Cho — who’s onscreen nearly the entire time — and a compelling, extremely timely meditation on the role of the internet in our lives are all positives that are nearly upended by the movie’s weak plot and over-the-top resolution.

But — as evidenced by the guy in my theater who spent the entirety of the movie’s 90-minute run repeating “wow” at regular intervals — Searching is also a powerful conversation starter. It’s worth watching just for the questions it raises about who we are in a digital world, and how real our virtual connections really are.

Searching unspools its story via a digital trail that’s increasingly hard to navigate

Like other recent films that have attempted to tell stories entirely through the online-only variant of “found” footage (most notably Unfriended, Searching’s underrated and more effective horror predecessor), Searching opens by carefully immersing you in its clunky but workable format. It does this by launching with a montage that’s basically the famous opening sequence of Up, if those scenes from a life had all been captured and narrated through the internet.

Over the course of a few minutes, we watch our protagonist, David (Cho), and his wife raise their young daughter, Margot, via a cute nostalgia trip through recognizable stages of internet culture. As the years go by, we progress through the days of Internet Explorer 6 and pop-up ads, AIM, eBay, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Skype, and viral jump scare videos, as they capture the family’s domestic life and Margot’s transition from childhood to teenage years. We also see David’s wife progress through, and ultimately lose, her battle with cancer.

This opening sequence, though melancholy, points to a euphemistic dream of what the internet is supposed to be — how it was, once upon a time, supposed to connect us. And because the first 10 minutes so effectively home in on the emotional core of our constantly connected world, the moment the first missed call occurs between Margot and her dad, it immediately feels ominous.

Over the rest of the movie, aided by a dogged police investigator (Debra Messing, understandably unsure what to do with herself here), David searches frantically for his daughter using every technological tool he can think of — including breaking down every locked door of her internet life. (Yep, this is a nightmare scenario for teens too.)

The suspense of Searching isn’t just in learning what secrets Margot is hiding from her father; it’s also in being met with barriers to knowledge at every turn — from passwords and privacy settings to unhelpful classmates. On paper, Searching is about a girl who goes missing. But onscreen, it’s about the difficulty of navigating the digital trail she leaves behind.

Searching is highly attuned to the specifics of online culture and how it shapes our virtual identities

At this point in our virtual lives, any inability to connect through digital space provokes significant anxiety, something Searching understands and exploits. It walks us through all the labor David has to go to in order to access Margot’s online life, including slow scenes where we watch him hack passwords.

The movie also expects you to do a lot of reading, and to follow a lot of text-based activity. This technique doesn’t always work, and it can feel tedious. (The ominous musical score helps, but it’s also often distracting.) But it mostly pulls it off, because we are so used to experiencing the world through our own screens that we feel immersed in the “action” of every Google search.

What Searching does especially well, though, is illustrate the use of platform-specific secrets and the heightened barrier to entry they present for a parent who’s desperate to understand them. “What is a Tumbler?” David asks at one point. Google redirects him to Tumblr, where he initially can tell nothing about his daughter’s life — not until he understands more about how she was using the website. It’s not until he hacks into the right platform, in this case a live-streaming server, that he starts to unravel the truth of Margot’s identity.

The film gets some meaningful — if heavy-handed — mileage out of exploring the way social media kicks in at this point, complete with a look at the rapid escalation of a viral news event into backlash and toxicity, as well as the ease with which social media engenders hypocrisy. Even the use of subreddits by amateur websleuths gets canvassed in a way that’s fairly impressive. And there’s poignancy in the way David is ultimately pushed so far out of his daughter’s personal life that he’s relegated to searching publicly available hashtags and crime scene photos, as though he’s just another public bystander.

I should note that this sort of exploration of online life is far from unique. Recent films like Unfriended and Eighth Grade, and particularly the musical Dear Evan Hansen, have all deftly explored the use of social media in allowing teenagers to create double identities for themselves, sometimes with harrowing results. What is unique to Searching is that Margot isn’t trying to present a better version of herself on the internet; like many of us, she’s being, instead, the truest version of herself — lonely, introverted, and complicated.

Because of this, Searching doesn’t necessarily implicate social media, or its ability to let us disguise ourselves, in dividing Margot and her father. Instead, it implicates technology itself, and the many ways it can ironically prevent us from making real connections with each other.

This is a weighty theme for a social thriller, and it’s here that Searching begins to break down. That’s partly because the direction isn’t assured enough to carry the movie’s themes through its chosen format: Bo Burnham’s use of the internet in Eighth Grade illustrates the cinematic potential of digital “found footage,” but Chaganty struggles to pull it off, and there are plenty of moments when the film’s technical elements feel awkward and stilted.

But the real issue is the plot. In its quest to explore multiple potential reasons for Margot’s disappearance, the film builds up plot hole after plot hole and then resolves them all using one extremely predictable plot twist (one the movie asks us to predict early on by revealing that Margot’s high school is “the home of the catfish”), combined with one extremely unbelievable plot twist. The result is a ridiculously over-the-top, deeply absurd, and unsatisfying climax that threatens to undermine the film as a whole.

Up until this point, Searching is a relatively realistic attempt at exploring a parent-child relationship as mitigated through the internet. The conclusion hints at the culpability of adults in allowing their children to become complete strangers, but it doesn’t matter because the point is lost in a wave of ludicrous plot resolution.

Searching asks us to confront many troubling aspects of our internet identities and the way those identities can become fragmented, distorted, and even impossible to parse unless you have a master password, or are at the very least attuned to the way various internet subcultures work.

The movie’s suggestion that we adapt our online identities according to the platforms we use is a subtly brilliant touch, and Cho’s mesmerizing acting keeps the story from flying off the rails until the very end. That ultimately may not be enough to balance out the unwieldy climax, but it at least provides plenty worth talking about — or, perhaps more appropriately, worth posting on the internet.