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Review: The Kid Detective

November 6, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

What if Encyclopedia Brown, the lead character from Donald J. Sobol’s book series about a young private eye, grew up? That’s the main question posed by The Kid Detective, a very good Canadian indie film from writer/director Evan Morgan that explores what happens when a former high school detective becomes an adult but isn’t ready to let go of his youth.

Abe Applebaum (Adam Brody) is the detective in question. He is in his early thirties and already washed up in his once promising career as an amateur sleuth. Back in middle school, Abe (played in flashbacks by Jesse Noah Gruman) was the kid people would call on when they needed help solving petty crimes. But that was eighteen years ago.

Abe gained local fame in his town (and the key to the city) after cracking the case of the missing school fundraising money, with the townspeople even chipping in to rent him his own office. But his promising career started to fizzle out when his friend and secretary Gracie Gulliver (Kaitlyn Chalmers-Rizzato) went missing, and he wasn’t able to assist the police in solving the case or finding her body.

Abe’s reputation took a hit and he never really moved on from it, with this cold case continuing to haunt him well into adulthood. Enter Caroline (Sophie Nélisse), a naive teen girl who shows up in Abe’s office and brings him his first adult case; her boyfriend of several months has been found murdered, and the police are having trouble finding the killer. She employs Abe to help, and he starts snooping around and interviewing her friends, finding new purpose as he chases both a motive and a murderer.

Morgan, making his feature directorial debut, is best known for having co-written The Dirties with his fellow Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson. Things get really interesting when you take into account the fact that Johnson had, at one point, been tapped to write a film adaptation of Encyclopedia Brown for Warner Bros., a project that seems to have fallen through. This could just be speculation, but my own deduction skills would lead me to question if the inspiration for The Kid Detective somehow emerged from his former collaborator’s stalled out project. Or maybe I’m reading too much into this.

None of this really matters anyway when it comes to The Kid Detective itself, which, as I mentioned earlier, is a very good film. Morgan’s screenplay is quite cleverly written, both in terms of his sharp ear for dialogue and in how he doles out clues that help tie everything together. The film does a satisfying job of weaving in flashbacks to reveal Abe’s backstory, building a sort of dual narrative that really pays off, and also allowing The Kid Detective to go deeper than expected as a character study.

Morgan does a great job of developing a fully engaging central mystery, and there is great appeal in how he decides to structure it. The filmmaker pays frequent tribute to all the hallmark elements of a classic detective movie, right down to Abe’s pulpy voiceover narration, while also crafting something that feels fresh and surprising. The film’s tone is very specific, and one of the most impressive things about The Kid Detective lies in its ability to deliver moments of pitch black humour with some very dark twists woven in, allowing Morgan to ably shift tones when needed, from comical to deeply unsettling.

Brody delivers compelling work in the film’s leading role, bringing nuance to his portrayal of a former child prodigy who peaked too early, and the inherent depression that Abe is experiencing is what really informs his character. Brody’s textured performance, and the film around it, have unexpected depth to them. The film ends up being extremely enjoyable to watch, but it’s also surprisingly moving as well, building a solid mystery around a story about regret and not being able to let go of untapped potential and unanswered questions from your past.

This leads up to a final moment that is, like much of what comes before it, both devastating and darkly comic. Maybe it’s because I used to love the Encyclopedia Brown books as a kid, but The Kid Detective simply hit all the right marks for me. If you are a fan of hardboiled detective movies, or films that successfully mimic that tone such as Brick and Assassination of a High School President, then this winking but loving homage proves to be a delightful and absorbing treat to watch.

The Kid Detective is opening in select theatres across Canada today, please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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