Torn between a few well reviewed titles, we decided to see Searching in theater last night. It was a gimmicky movie with a compelling story that strikes at the core of modern experience. It warrants seeing in a place where you can consume the film without distraction, but it rewards such dedicated attention. There are some decent twists in this one, so we’ll be trying to avoid spoilers in this review – that there is a twist shouldn’t be a surprise, one trailer boldly claims: “you won’t see the twist coming.”

The story is straightforward. A man (John Cho) and his wife (Sara Sohn) have a daughter. The wife dies of cancer, and the man and daughter soldier on having the sort of single parent + only child relationship one would expect. Until one day when the daughter doesn’t come home. The story quickly unfolds to reveal that he doesn’t really know anything about what his daughter has been up to.

The gimmick of the film is that the entire story is told through the screens of the various computers used by the family and, eventually, the police. It’s an easy to follow narrative, despite the gimmick, because we are now at a point where we understand the windows and clicking. Fortunately for the audience and story, every character of importance is a video blogger and Facetime user. There are a few moments where more traditional camera work is necessary – fortunately there are news clips and dramatically placed nanny-cams.

Searching derives its title partially from the efforts to find the daughter but also from the quick jumps to Google to look up some term or social media site. It is the story of how the characters’ lives play out through their use of computers, but it is also the story of how society works today. The father searches through his daughter’s laptop to discover not only where she is but – in a way – who she is. (It’s not as cryptic as that… it’s more thematic than gratuitous shock twist.)

All of the characters are believable, though I did have some problems with Debra Messing as Detective Sergeant Vick. She doesn’t quite talk like a cop, and that led me down a path of unwarranted suspicion. In trying to explain it, I’m reminded of a quote from The Blues Brothers, “It’s got a cop motor… It’s got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. …” Police officers walk and talk like police officers. After you see Searching, you’ll tell me that it’s the role she’s playing, and she does that well. Sure, but it’s just not… “cop”.

This is the second major movie to use the gimmick of being told through laptop screens and iPhones. The “shock” movie Unfriended was the first, and Modern Family did an episode this way too. It works as a medium only when the story warrants this medium. A warning to Hollywood: there are only a few such stories, and Searching takes up two of those spots.