'The Kid Detective': Film Review

The Kid Detective Production Still
Sony Pictures
Peculiar, funny and surprisingly effective.

Evan Morgan's detective story stars Adam Brody as a former wunderkind struggling with adulthood.

A movie that keeps revealing itself to be a little bit odder, a little bit better than you thought it was two minutes ago, Evan Morgan's The Kid Detective is either a lucky accident or a balancing act more graceful than a first-time writer/director should expect to pull off.

The tale of a 32 year-old failure (Adam Brody) who was once his town's most celebrated child, it spends much of its time looking, with some humor but little mockery, at how it feels to fail to live up to one's potential. But it's also the mystery yarn its title suggests, and one whose darker moments require us to point out that, title notwithstanding, this isn't quite a family film. As suggested by scenes in which our hero recalls Kyle MacLachlan peeping through slats in Blue Velvet, it's a place where curiosity and innocence are incompatible.

In voiceover, Brody's Abe Applebaum seems to be setting us up for cute comedy as he recounts his Encyclopedia Brown boyhood: His office was a treehouse, where he charged four bits to solve mostly harmless mysteries in a world not far removed from 1950s white-bread America. Boasting the kind of weird insights into human behavior that probably only hold true in fiction, he righted enough wrongs that the mayor eventually gave him the key to the city. But then came a case that was close to home and unsolvable.

Now a boozy pariah, he continues to straggle into an office with the private eye's requisite pebbled window and indifferent secretary (a goth played with perfect don't-give-a-f---ness by Sarah Sutherland), but rarely gets work beyond finding lost cats. His parents (Wendy Crewson and Jonathan Whittaker) bring groceries and judgmental concern whenever they visit his home.

Then a real case arrives. High-schooler Caroline (Sophie Nelisse) wants Abe to find the person who killed her boyfriend Patrick. By stabbing him 17 times.

Everyone in town knows Abe shouldn't get involved, given his lack of success solving serious crimes and his overall failure to maintain grown-up standards. But his heart goes out to Caroline, an unworldly orphan. He warns her she may learn things she'd rather not know about the boy she thinks was as uncomplicated and good as she is.

The fact that Abe is quickly proven right keeps us believing in the keen-observer persona he still clings to. But slowly, especially when Caroline starts joining him in his pursuit of leads, we realize how often he is blind. Little things add up, and Nelisse manages to project unflappable sharpness while remaining deferential to her elder. Caroline may have been blind to Patrick's secrets, but she's no open book herself.

Encounters with local bad kids, with the chief of police (Maurice Dean Wint) and with a very weary high-school principal (Peter MacNeill) contribute to the movie's tally of sad chuckles, showing the mixture of fondness, disappointment and pity townfolk have for Abe. (Except for those "kids on the stoop." They're just dicks.) As any good shamus eventually will, Abe gets slipped a mickey and wakes up in a compromising position — only this time, the mickey is self-administered. Later, an amusing scene of incompetent skullduggery leads to even more public shame. Yet Abe persists.

Morgan's script generously allows us to deduce the truth just before Abe stumbles across it, which is not to say it doesn't have some real surprises left. It's fun to watch Abe put A and B together, and to regain some of his self-respect in the process. But even victory will bring mixed emotions, which Morgan conveys with unsettling finesse.

Production companies: Woods Entertainment, JoBro
Distributor: Sony
Cast: Adam Brody, Sophie Nelisse, Sarah Sutherland, Wendy Crewson, Jonathan Whittaker, Peter MacNeill, Maurice Dean Wint, Tzi Ma, Lisa Truong
Director-Screenwriter: Evan Morgan
Producers: Jonathan Bronfman, William Woods
Executive producers: Barry Meyerowitz, Jeff Sackman, John Laing, Mark Gingras
Director of photography: Mike McLaughlin
Production designer: Jennifer Morden
Costume designer: Muska Zurmati
Editor: Curt Lobb
Composer: Jay McCarrol
Casting director: Ashley Hallihan

Rated R, 99 minutes