Tag Archives: B

THE KID DETECTIVE

Producers: William Woods and Jonathan Bronfman   Director: Evan Morgan   Screenplay: Evan Morgan   Cast: Adam Brody, Sophie Nélisse, Tzi Ma, Peter MacNeill, Maurice Dean Wint,  Jonathan Whittaker, Wendy Crewson, Sarah Sutherland, Jesse Noah Gruman, Lisa Truong, Sophia Webster, Dallas Edwards, Isaac Kragten, Amalia Williamson and Sharon Crandell    Distributor: Sony Pictures Entertainment/Stage 6 Films

Grade: B-

A combination of mystery and character study that begins as deadpan dramedy and grows darker and darker as it proceeds, Evan Morgan’s oddball mixture of comic weirdness and sinister goings-on in a small town isn’t completely satisfying, but has enough in its favor to merit a look. 

Adam Brody was a master of quirkiness as far back as “The O.C.,” and he hasn’t lost the touch as Abe Applebaum, who as a young teen (Jesse Noah Gruman, who matches up nicely with Brody physically) in the ostensibly quiet town of Willowbrook started what amounted to a kiddie detective agency, first in his tree house and then in an office provided by his father (Jonathan Whittaker).  He tackles mostly child-oriented, trivial cases for a quarter—when a kid asks him to investigate how blood got on his father’s car, for example, he suggests the potential client drop the matter—but gains a reputation and a considerable ego, especially after he solves bigger mysteries like who stole the receipts from a charity drive.  The mayor gave him the key to the city, and when he identified a thief at the sweet shop, the owner promised him free ice cream for life.

But then a real mystery—the disappearance of Gracie Gulliver, a young girl his age (which we see happen in a brief prologue)—flummoxes him, and destroys his confidence.  Though he continues with his “profession,” at thirty-one he’s become a local joke, still taking on penny-ante commissions under the contemptuous eye of his goth secretary (Sarah Sutherland).  He does keep accepting those free ice cream cones, though, to the obvious discomfort of the store proprietor.  His dad and mom (Wendy Crewson) worry that he’s become a perpetually depressed slacker, and threaten to hold back any financial support until he buckles down. 

They are taken aback, and none too happily, when Abe finds a real case to pursue.  High-schooler Caroline (Sophie Nélisse) hires him to investigate the murder of her boyfriend Chang, an honor student whose body was found floating in the river.  Dissatisfied that the police have come up with no leads, she turns to Abe, who sees the case as an opportunity to redeem himself.        

The initial phases of his investigation do not go especially well—some of the people he questions call him a poseur, and an interview with Chang’s parents (Tzi Ma and Sharon Crandell) is pretty much a disaster when he suggests their son might not have been the altar boy they believe.  Encounters with some schoolyard slackers and a bicycle gang in search of the dead boy’s possible ties to drug dealing are equally unhelpful. 

But as he doggedly continues, he uncovers some potentially useful information, as reports about Chang he gets from a goofily straitlaced guy named Calvin (Dallas Edwards), although the revelations aren’t always the sort of things Caroline wants to hear.  There are sequences along the way that seem like time-wasters (one, for instance, when he hides in a closest to avoid detection, a tactic he’s been using since he was thirteen). 

Eventually, though, helped by information he secures from Constable Cleary (Maurice Dean Wint) and the venerable high-school principal (Peter MacNeill), he not only solves the present case but the long-ago missing-persons one that had been an albatross around his neck.  The answers he gets are uncomfortable, and the ways in which they’re uncovered take the movie into very dark places indeed; nor is the effect his success as a shamus has on Abe something he can revel in.  But they bring the narrative—and the character study of Abe—full circle.

Brody dominates the movie, working with writer-director Morgan to set the tone and determine the leisurely pace, which editor Curt Lobb is at pains to maintain.  Everyone else in the cast follows the same pattern, but since they have far less material to massage, all of them—including Nélisse, whose character is pretty one-note—play distant second fiddle to the star.  Production designer Jennifer Morden and cinematographer Mike McLaughlin give the visuals a distinctive look, though the color images don’t exactly mimic the noirish mood that’s part of the mix; and Jay McCarrol’s score adds some whimsical touches. 

“The Kid Detective” is a movie of many parts, both narrative and stylistic, and they don’t always fit together as smoothly as they might; but it’s more fun than not to watch them clash.  

SPONTANEOUS

Producers: Nick Cortese, Brian Duffield, Matthew Kaplan and Jordan Levin   Director: Brian Duffield   Screenplay: Brian Duffield   Cast: Katharine Langford, Charlie Plummer. Yvonne Orji, Hayley Law, Rob Huebel, Piper Perabo, Chelah Horsdal, Laine MacNeil, Clive Holloway and Kaitlyn Bernard   Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Grade: B+

An unusual YA novel by Aaron Starmer, published in 2016, has become a most unlikely treat thanks to Brian Duffield, a screenwriter of hitherto undistinguished achievement (“Insurgent,” “Underwater”) who not only did the adaptation but took the director’s chair for the first time.  “Spontaneous” is a very dark dramedy with horror elements about a teen romance that blossoms at a high school where students begin randomly and literally exploding in the style of Cronenberg (“Scanners”) or DePalma (“The Fury”). And remarkably, it manages to be both charming and insightful.

Things begin in fairly ordinary style, as cynical Mara (Katharine Langford) shares her woes with her best friend Tess (Hayley Law) at her side.  But the routine abruptly changes when a fellow student blows up during class, splattering blood on everybody.  (A brief description of the victim is given—a practice that continues throughout via narration or cameos, which makes them a bit more than just anonymous afterthoughts.)

Sequestered by authorities for questioning, the teens offer their observations—some snarky, others fearful—and Mara catches the attention of sheepish Dylan Hovemeyer (Charlie Plummer).  Soon she starts getting text messages from a secret admirer—and one of them involving a past president is actually pretty witty.  It’s not long before Dylan approaches her and Tess and she realizes he’s the author.  He tells her that he’s had a crush on her since freshman year but has held off saying anything for fear of rejection.  They hit it off immediately, and are quickly a couple, bantering and exchanging their deeper feelings.

Meanwhile their classmates keep popping off, as it were.  One of them even takes to dressing in PPE as a safety precaution, which proves insufficient in the end.  Naturally the government gets involved, quarantining the surviving kids for tests and experimentation with potential treatments.  In isolation Mara and Dylan grow ever closer, and after their release one might hope their relationship will continue…until the screen suddenly goes completely red.

At that point “Spontaneous” turns much more serious as the consequences of what’s happened come home, and the reality of loss sinks in.  It’s made clear that teens do not handle grief well, despite the support they receive from parents and friends.  It’s also made clear, however, that they can overcome it, and a politically-inspired capper carries a punch. 

This is a challenging twist on the teens-facing-death genre—both for the darkly satiric stance of the initial acts and the dramatic, borderline tragic, one of the third.  But both as screenwriter and director Duffield manages the tonal shifts with élan, and in Langford and Plummer he’s blessed with leads who are effortlessly engaging.  The supporting cast is excellent as well, with Law exemplary as Mara’s obligatory best friend, while Rob Huebel and Piper Perabo are equally fine as his sympathetic parents.  As Dylan’s widowed mother Chelah Horsdal has less screen time, but does have a single scene toward the close that’s extremely touching.   The youngsters who play the leads’ classmates do well too, and Yvonne Orji provides a mixture of strength and vacillation as the chief government investigator. 

The production is technically polished, with Aaron Morton’s cinematography, Chris August’s production design, Sekyiwa Wi-Afedzi and Brooke Wilcox’s costumes and Steve Edwards’ editing all top-tier.  Joseph Trapanese’s score is eclectically right=on.

The anxieties of the world’s current situation probably explain why “Spontaneous” is receiving only limited theatrical release.  It deserves better.  But in whatever format you see it, it will prove an unexpectedly sharp, smart teen comedy-drama with two exceptional lead performances.