Oozing with style and delivering a top-notch mystery story, The Kid Detective is a refreshing piece of cinema with a poignant performance from Adam Brody.
Speak to most people and they’ll know Adam Brody as playing that geeky guy Seth Cohen in the television series, The O.C. Despite a number of feature film roles since his rise to fame in the early 2000s, Brody still hasn’t formed a name for himself outside of this character. But with a memorable supporting turn in Ready or Not (2019) and now a leading performance in The Kid Detective (2020), we may well start to see a new side to this actor. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to posit that The Kid Detective – Evan Morgan’s devilishly stylish and sharply witty feature film directorial debut – is a breakthrough moment for Brody, within the medium of film that is. Like his performance in it, the film is a breath of fresh air, an often funny, often smart, always gripping mystery. It may not be among the best or most important films of 2020, but it is certainly one of the more unique and enjoyable ones.
Brody is the titular Kid Detective (real name Abe Applebaum), except he isn’t a kid anymore and he’s only really a detective on a good day. As a child, Abe became a local celebrity in his small town, solving numerous mysteries and getting so famous (locally) that he needed a secretary (the mayor’s daughter, Gracie Gulliver) and also got a lifetime supply of free ice cream from the local parlour. Gracie, his friend as well as his colleague, disappeared without a trace when they were both 14. Abe, unable to solve the disappearance, not only became a sorry dumping ground for the town’s grief and frustration at the unsolved mystery, but also suffered on a personal level from this failure.
Skip forward 18 years and Abe, still living in the town and still technically a detective, has never moved past this fateful moment. A new murder case is brought to him and intricately weaves in with the past, giving him hope but also forcing him to confront it head-on. The less said about the plot for a film like this, the better, but know that is well-measured, expertly paced, and written with a high degree of intelligence by Morgan.
The Kid Detective is a dynamite blend of comedy and drama. Morgan’s script is full of smart one-liners, delivered rapidly by Brody and his co-stars like the impressive Sophie Nélisse (Monsieur Lazhar, The Book Thief) as Caroline, and more often than not the humour lands. There are a couple of moments that miss the mark (a reference to an investigation by Abe into whether a member of the town is gay feels increasingly unsavoury the more it is referenced) but for the most part, The Kid Detective is terrifically witty and self-aware. At one point Caroline, whose boyfriend Patrick Chang is the victim in the murder investigation, calls herself out for her subconscious racism after wrongly assuming the origami roses she received were from Patrick, the assumption solely based on his Asian heritage. The humour is welcome and blends superbly with the heavier elements of murder and more (no spoilers here).
And the drama itself, centring around the murder case which becomes more intrinsic the longer the film progresses, ensures The Kid Detective moves along at a compelling, captivating pace. It is abrisk 97 minutes but never feels watered-down nor empty. The first 60 minutes or so of the film sets the scene for Abe’s character, showing his rise to fame in his younger years before his subsequent fall from grace, and eventually introducing the new murder case too. Films like this need the subsequent end reveal to be strong, to have a firm foundation to make the audience believe it, and The Kid Detective most certainly has this in its finale. Not only this, but you want, even need, Abe to succeed in his investigation, if only to calm his own inner demons, let alone vanquish the derision of the townspeople. Inevitably, the fresh murder investigation brought before Abe is connected to his past, and more specifically Gracie’s disappearance. Again, the less said, the better, but you’d be foolish to miss out on this, a plot that deserves its place as one of the cleverest of the year.
DP Michael Robert McLaughlin shoots the town of Willowbrook with a whimsical haziness, adding to the mystery, and firmly suggesting that behind the idyllic tree-lined avenues and sweet high-street, there’s a sinister side to the town. The Kid Detective has a feel of David Lynch to it, most specifically Blue Velvet (1986), which like Willowbrook, contains a town full of white picket fences and smiling faces, all merely covering up intense darkness and evil. It is testament to McLaughlin and Morgan’s skills behind the camera that they invoke similar feelings in The Kid Detective. It also plays out like a classic film noir from the 1940s or 50s, amplified by Jay McCarrol’s wonderful score, which is full of laid-back drumbeats, wandering basslines and jazzy brass sections. The Kid Detective is almost an ode to these classic films, but also manages to remain fresh and stand in its own right.
The supporting cast, like Nélisse, are impressive but The Kid Detective is Brody’s film through and through. He captures the hapless nature of the adult Abe impressively (a long scene of him breaking and entering as part of the investigation and subsequently becoming trapped into two different closets is hilarious) but also his inherent goodness, which was the reason he became a detective as a youngster. Most impressively, Brody completely succeeds in bringing an emotive angle to things; this is a man who peaked so early in his life, like a child actor, and ultimately discovered that the world can be cruel when expectations are set so high from such an early age. Abe’s need to prove his ability to both himself and to the townspeople, as well as to his disappointed parents, is heart-breaking. On the basis of his performance, Brody can expect many more leading roles to come his way, such is his ability to balance deadpan humour with serious emotion.
The Kid Detective is a film better seen than read about. Such is the way of its plot being a superb mystery, it would be wrong to give too much away about it. Morgan here has created a fresh, exciting film that acts not as a ‘copycat’ of traditional noir mysteries but as a respectful homage to them. He knows what makes these films tick (the intriguing setup, the down-on-his-luck detective, the woozy moods and styles) and leans into them heavily, whilst simultaneously delivering a truly wonderful story that will leave you shocked but satisfied come its conclusion. Come for the entertaining first hour and stay for the fascinating reveal in its finale.