There comes a point in many people’s lives when they realize they’re not going to live up to their past potential. Whatever bright promise they once showed grows dim in the recesses of time, and the gradual steps toward the mediocrity and bitter acceptance of a middling adulthood come heavily. This is not autobiographical; I had little-to-no potential growing up, and I’m certainly not living up to it now! But it’s the tortured and tormented existence of Abe Applebaum, the former child protigee-turned-sad-sack protagonist of writer-director Evan Morgan’s dark noir dramedy The Kid Detective, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month before making its unexpected theatrical release (at least, for me) this weekend.
In what’s meant to be a dramatic working of Encyclopedia Brown by way of an aged, more depressed version of Derrick Comedy’s Mystery Team, Evan Morgan’s The Kid Detective follows Abe Applebaum (Adam Brody), a detective kid wonder who is now stuck in his ways as an early 30s sleuth still chasing the same sort of small-town crimes he was solving when he was half his age. At one time, various townsfolk lauded the kid as a shining example of the community. Now, they wish they didn’t know him. Or, at least, that’s how they act around him. His office is worn down and filled with wilted newspaper clippings celebrating former glories. His secretary barely gives him the time of day. Suffice to say, Abe’s better days are now behind him, but that doesn’t stop Caroline (Sophie Nelisee) from hiring Abe to find out who killed her boyfriend, Patrick. In an effort to solve a case that doesn’t rely on missing pets or poor-behavior kids, Abe and Caroline trek through their Canadian suburbs looking for answers for this inexplicable death. The answers they find, however, will make Abe question everything he knows — and everything he thought he knew, too.
The Kid Detective aspires for a tricky tonal balance, and it doesn’t fully nail it. The earlier segments, told primarily in flashbacks, are meant to wash us in bittersweet nostalgia over long-lost innocence set to be crushed by the morose reality of this detective’s 30-something existence, but this ultimately feels a bit lumbered and off. The lighthearted segments don’t carry quite enough elevation while the darker elements are too tempered to be fully relished. The noir elements, while always fun, sometimes feel like dressing curtains placed over the narrative, as a means to give the movie some sense of consistency despite never really playing a prominent role in the story itself.
It’s thankfully in the later segments of the movie when Morgan starts to figure out his groove. The dramatic elements play better with the dark comedy than any sort of attempted indie quirkiness that’s found in the beginning, and if it weren’t for the unsuspecting assurance of this third act, I don’t think The Kid Detective ultimately would’ve worked. And in addition to some sharp camerawork provided by Michael Robert McLaughlin (The New Romantic), the film owes credit to the commitment of Brody, as well as commendable supporting performances from Peter MacNeill, Tzi Ma, and particularly Nelisse, to name a few standouts.
Though the movie tries to manage a difficult tone throughout, the actors remain dedicated to the material, fleshing out one-note characters by providing some unsuspecting reflection amidst the movie’s otherwise cheeky, winking, and knowing humor. Particularly as this pitch-black lark about arrested development settles into its adult themes, The Kid Detective surprises when it’s more willing to be itself and handle the messier, bleaker aspects of its story with precision and care. It’s a shame the early segments don’t carry this same confidence, but perhaps the second half is more rewarding because it’s able to weather the moments of uncertainty and communicate our lead character’s tough road to his late adulthood. In any case, what at first seems to be a weaker version of the aforementioned Mystery Team ends up becoming a (slightly) more lighthearted variation of Rian Johnson’s Brick, albeit with a detective who is still stuck in his youth. Certainly, The Kid Detective is the sort of film that you want to root for simply for its enticing premise. While it’s not especially fresh, it’s still relatively novel.
It’s the sort of film where the idea is a little better than the execution, but it’s not without its appealing traits. Particularly in the midst of trying to find itself, Morgan’s effort travels a bumpy and largely inconsistent road, but there are bleakly funny pleasures to be found, even during its less certain points. Like our once-promising protagonist, it doesn’t reach its potential. But settling for decency isn’t the worst thing in the world.