* * * (out of five)

Ex-Google employee Aneesh Chaganty’s debut feature Searching follows in the footsteps of 2014’s Unfriended (and its recent sequel) by being set entirely on a computer screen – in the various windows, applications, browsers and sometimes simply on the desktop space. In these films, the form is absolutely as important as the content – does the story actually get told without breaking the self-imposed obstruction? – and the hesitation of a mouse-click can tell as much as an actor’s pause.

Unfriended was a straight-up horror film, setting itself further obstructions by taking place in real time and mainly within a five-person Skype video chat. I wrote of it at the time that it was “a deeply intricate, beautifully constructed and very creepy horror film that is its own brand of wildly original.” Chaganty’s film aims for higher artistic ground; Searching is a thriller, not a horror film, and – by concerning a widowed father looking for a lost daughter – it strives for some deep emotional resonance as well.

The good news is that the form holds, and holds well. The story is very effectively told within the gimmick, albeit with a few cheats, I thought, when it used “news footage” that happened to be being watched on a computer screen. All manner of apps are utilized – many with their real names and interfaces, which is interesting, and possibly a payola bonanza all around – and do what they do in the real world, which is to say, on your own desktop or laptop. The plot pans out over a number of days, and Chaganty is inventive here, using a pretty standard screensaver as an ominous portent while also setting up the convention of the passage of time.

Unfortunately, the mystery story, while clean and tidy, is not particularly clever, and I seriously doubt would stand up to a “straight” telling without a few more twists, turns and reversals. If the gimmick doesn’t hold you, I’m not sure the script will, but in tandem, they add up to something solid and clever without re-setting the bar. Unfriended still holds the belt.

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