Like movies in 3-D or constructed from "found footage," movies told through a computer screen probably will have a brief shelf life. The feeling of novelty in viewing computer contents, Skype dialogues, surveillance footage and social media posts is inherently limited.
"Searching" takes good advantage of the computer-centric subgenre before it's played out.
Wisely, the emphasis isn't this week's technology, but solid storytelling — turning a mystery that unfolds entirely on a laptop into a capably constructed classic suspense thriller.
It has enough twists, turns, red herrings, chills and surprises to jangle the steadiest nerves, compelling characters and an unexpected degree of emotional power.
What keeps it fresh is the decision to move this 21st-century story beyond the young 20s focus of the popular "Unfriended" movies, also launched by this film's producer, Timur Bekmambetov.
"Searching" extends to a middle-aged single dad, his brother, and a police detective leading the search for his vanished 16-year-old daughter.
It gives the mystery an added level of anxiety as the troubled hero moves through unfamiliar online surroundings and activities like a fish out of water.
John Cho, most recently seen exercising his comedy chops as Sulu in the new "Star Treks," transfers impressively into drama as David Kim, a middle-class California suburban Everyman.
Recently widowed, he walks a high-wire act balancing the demands of his job with parenting his high schooler, Margot.
It's a well-written character, loving but clumsy in showing it, demanding yet apologetic for pressing hard, and Cho owns it from the jump.
When Margot says she needs to stay overnight with a friend for a study session, David's video message to her has all the amateur theater awkwardness of any parent who needs to express curiosity without being uncool.
When she goes absent at school and doesn't return calls or messages, David takes a step-by-step trip into high anxiety. He opens today's equivalent to a secret diary — her laptop — and discovers that he doesn't really know his daughter's whole life. Or friends. Or feelings.
Perhaps she's impulsively on a joy ride getaway from boredom, temporarily off the grid and having self-sufficient fun for a couple of days in the woods. Or she ran away from a life that wasn't right since her mother passed away. God forbid she's been abducted.
Cho gives a totally natural, terrifically understated performance. He expresses David's turbulent feelings of grief and guilt as he goes through family videos of Margot's childhood without speaking a word.
The contrast between the happy younger man recorded with a child on his shoulders and the present-day wreck watching it is fine acting and excellent visual storytelling side by side.
David explores Margot's world through typing and cursor movements that silently reflect his feelings like Braille displays. Cho holds his feelings close to his chest, but the breaks in the synthetically calm voice he uses to talk with Margot's friends say it all. After finding possible connections to drugs and money, he's near a breakdown.
Fate seems to send him a guardian angel in the form of Det. Vick (Debra Messing), who takes charge of the missing persons case soon after the police step in.
She's the kind of experienced, just-the-facts professional who can give him appropriate amounts of hope at each new stage of the investigation. Each time searchers find unnerving information, her reassurances take a step back.
First-time filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, keeps nail-biting distress running at full throttle.
He's strikingly creative in finding various ways to make electronic eyes tell the story, including a kinetic fistfight. "Searching" is the reboot that computer-screen movies needed.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language.