The Kid Detective is set in a place that’s familiar from other children’s movies, one of those quaint, picturesque small towns where the streets are regularly swept, interiors are always flooded with light, everyone (by which I mean “mostly white people”) says hi to one another, and there isn’t a chain restaurant or coffee shop in sight. When you put a jaded, hung-over private detective wandering these streets while still bearing the marks of last night’s beating, the dissonance is compelling. When you have Adam Brody playing that private eye, it’s even more so. In fact, it’s enough to distinguish this flawed murder mystery from the rest of the crowd.
Brody plays Abe Applebaum, who became famous as a pre-teen (played in flashbacks by Jesse Noah Gruman) cracking mysteries around town, Encyclopedia Brown-style. Now he’s in his 30s and still being hired to find lost cats and determine whether people are secretly gay. Even his perpetually stoned roommate thinks he’s a loser. A real case comes his way courtesy of 17-year-old Caroline (Sophie Nélisse), whose high-school boyfriend was found stabbed to death in the creek. With the police stymied, she turns to the hard-drinking Abe, who’s still haunted by a classmate’s disappearance that he failed to solve as a child.
The biggest problem here is tone, as writer-director Evan Morgan appears not to grasp the comic potential in his setup. High-school noir is difficult to do — Rian Johnson managed it by playing up the absurd aspects of his story in Brick, while Rob Thomas drilled into the details of detective work in the early seasons of Veronica Mars. Morgan seems caught betwixt and between, and nowhere is this more evident than in the final shot, with the detective reduced to weeping at his case’s outcome while Nancy Sinatra’s bouncy “Sugar Town” plays on the soundtrack. The ironic contrast fails to hit there. The small-town backdrop could have come out of The War With Grandpa (indeed, Isaac Kragten acts in both movies), but Morgan never uses it for phantasmagoric power.
Even so, a good central mystery will paper over many cracks, and unlike the current Netflix hit Enola Holmes, this movie has one. It’s funny that so many criminals that Abe talks to are kids whom he busted during his childhood. A lot less funny are the scary, incel-in-training sentiments he finds in the handwritten journal kept by Caroline’s doughy school friend (Dallas Edwards): “No one knows the love and violence that I have inside me.” Abe is wired into the school’s extensive drug network, and he turns up evidence that Caroline’s apparently sexless boyfriend was cheating on her. A nice running gag has Caroline witnessing circumstances that make the sad sack Abe look like a tough guy to her. A veritable monster is at the heart of the foul deeds here, and Abe’s climactic confrontation with him comes to a gory and messy end, but not before the man says, “I always liked you, Abe. We both know what it’s like not to be taken seriously.” This is like a David Lynch film minus the surreal vibe; the bright surfaces are fake, and the darkness lurking underneath is real.
If Brody did better playing a self-loathing drunk in Ready or Not, he’s still a fair guide to the shenanigans here, which descend into levels of hink reminiscent of Chinatown and Room. Reviewing The Kid Detective, one of my fellow film critics asked who this movie, which looks like a PG-rated lark and so determinedly plumbs human evil, was for. Apparently, the answer is: me. If you share my taste for a good puzzle that dares go where Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys won’t, follow me.
The Kid Detective
Starring Adam Brody and Sophie Nélisse. Written and directed by Evan Morgan. Rated R.