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
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.