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John Cho

“SEARCHING” My rating: B 

102 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Most of us spend too much time staring at screens. So why has it taken so long for Hollywood to deliver a feature film that tells its story exclusively through Internet images?

In Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching” a single father sets out on a desperate quest to find his missing teenage daughter. We never see or hear him — or any of the characters — except via some sort of electronic device …especially a computer monitor or a smart phone.

Initially it would seem that this approach — it’s a kind of variation on the “found footage” gimmick –would be limiting, both narratively and visually.

But that’s not the case. Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian find ingeniously inventive ways of telling their story. Often we’re looking at a computer screen overflowing with various windows between which our eyes flit…at least at those times when the filmmakers don’t employ editing and zooms to focus us on a particular bit of business.

The movie opens with a montage of home videos featuring David Kim (John Cho), his wife and daughter. Through these we see the family in good times and bad — the Missus is eaten away by cancer over years. The heart-grabbing effect is not unlike the brilliant photo album introduction of Pixar’s “Up.”

Post-tragedy, David and daughter Margot (Michelle La) appear to have a more or less normal relationship. We see them exchanging texts and communicating over FaceTime. He’s a concerned parent, but in no way smothering.

Which may be his big mistake.  One night Margot goes to a friend’s house for a late-night study session.  It’s almost 24 hours before David realizes she never came home and is no longer answering her cell phone.

He starts tracking down and calling Margot’s friends. They know nothing (they’re not really friends…more like acquaintances); worse, David begins to realize that his girl had a private life to which he wasn’t privy. For years he’s been giving her $100 a week to pay for her piano studies; now he discovers that she abandoned those classes months ago, but has continued to collect the cash.

The panicked father contacts the cops and Detective Vick (Debra Messing) takes the case. Despite her admonitions that he should leave the investigating to the professionals, David cannot help digging ever deeper into Margot’s digital history. What he finds is starting to look like a parent’s worst nightmare.

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