The Kid Detective is Evan Morgan’s feature debut – he wrote and directed – and it’s a cracker, a mystery that manages to be funny and dramatic, brand new and yet intensely familiar.
Adam Brody plays Abe Applebaum, the “kid detective” whose deductive powers once made him a big noise in his small town, where he’d solve mysteries ranging from missing lunch money at school to cases that stumped the police. Young Sherlock Holmes.
Now, aged 32, he’s drinking and watching daytime TV, unshaven, a burn-out who can’t follow his successful first act and who’s still haunted by the case that finished his run of glory – a missing schoolgirl, abducted presumed dead. His parents are worried about him.
However, he plods on as a proper private detective, though his cases never really extend beyond missing cats and the like. The small town that made him is now constraining him. To them he’ll always be a kid.
And then one day a case comes in, a young woman whose boyfriend has just been killed. Whodunit? Off they go together, Caroline (Sophie Nélisse) and Abe, sometimes with Abe’s parents (Wendy Crewson, Jonathan Whittaker) trailing along in the rear, because they worry about him.
The character of Abe is crucial to the success of The Kid Detective, and Brody has got it just about right. Though he has the looks and often the line delivery of a young Colin Firth, in essence Brody is playing James Garner in The Rockford Files, the good-natured, ruffled, quippy detective more like to get punched than do any actual punching, as likely to stumble on the key to the mystery as discover it by deduction or sleuthing.
Garner mixed with a bucket of social awkwardness. Abe is a master of inadvertently saying the wrong thing, whether it’s to the grieving parents (Tzi Ma, Sharon Crandall) of the dead man, or the bereft girlfriend or his old head teacher (Peter McNeill), who he addresses as “dude”.
It’s very laconic, very deadpan, very well played and brilliantly written – in an early exchange with his parents, who are hectoring him about his lack of cases, Abe retorts, “I had a case last week. Some gay guy wanted me to find out if another guy was gay.” “Was he?” asks his mother. “A little bit,” Abe replies. As the implications of this remark sink in, Abe’s dad looks away.
It’s about 15 years since Rian Johnson made his feature debut with Brick, which was a similar excursion into Philip Marlowe territory. Then it was Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the young schamus, and the angle was that he was an actual schoolkid who spat world-weary dialogue out of the side of his mouth, Bogie style.
Though Abe doesn’t speak like he’s been scripted by Raymond Chandler, he operates out of a recognisably Marlowe-esque office – with frosted glass in the door, gold lettering picking out his name and a secretary. I mean, who has a secretary? Though Lucy (Sarah Sutherland) treats Abe and the clients with disdain and has multiple piercings and goth make-up so she’s not the usual variety. Probably doesn’t take shorthand.
There’s a dark psychology bubbling along beneath the frothy top layer – the boy who can’t grow up, in a town that won’t let him. This, added to Abe’s crippling lack of self esteem, brilliantly characterised by a scene when Abe takes some “ego boosting” drugs (cocaine, basically), makes for a film operating on several levels.
Adding more textures is Jay McCarrol’s soundtrack, which seems to be referencing The Ipcress File, a mysterious way to go but it seems to work.
The character of the not-exactly-grief-stricken Caroline is a bit of a blank, but that’s by intention. It’s the secretary, Lucy, who’s interesting. Is that a spark between Abe and her, Perry Mason and Della Street style? Is this a case of To Be Continued?
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© Steve Morrissey 2021