Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 23, 2021)
Given its title, one might expect The Kid Detective to offer a Nancy Drew-style flick for youngsters. Instead, it gives us a look at what happens to a prodigy who grows up and doesn’t fulfill his potential.
As an adolescent, Abe Applebaum (Jesse Noah Grumanb) gains notoriety as a youthful crime-solver. However, when his classmate Gracie Gulliver (Kaitlyn Chalmers-Rizzato) disappears, Abe can’t find the culprit, and his failure ruins his reputation.
20 years later, Abe (Adam Brody) still works as a detective, but his inability to rescue Gracie haunts him. Abe barely ekes out a living with a mix of low-rent clients and sporadic employment.
After 16-year-old Patrick Chang (Lian McLean-Smits) gets murdered, his girlfriend Caroline (Sophie Nélisse) recruits Abe to solve the case. This leads Abe on a journey that involves both the current crime and his unresolved past.
Given that it came out during the COVID-19 pandemic, Detective found next to no audience theatrically, and I suspect the title didn’t help. I’d guess that many prospective viewers figured the movie offered wholesome family-friendly “PG” fare, not an “R”-rated dark comedy.
Not that I think Detective would’ve found a mass audience with a better title and/or a release pre-pandemic. An understated mix of comedy and drama, it doesn’t offer the “crowd-pleasing” nature that would spread it to a broad crowd.
Don’t take that as a criticism, for I really appreciate the movie’s intensely low-key manner. Whereas the premise pushes toward wacky silliness, the story goes in the other direction, and that makes it all the more effective.
As a comedy, Detective offers what I’d call a “laugh in your mind” kind of affair. Sure, I chuckled a few times, but this isn’t a real knee-slapper, as its humor remains wry and dry.
Oh my, does Detective offer a dry affair! It’s the cinematic equivalent of Death Valley, as it rarely embraces strong emotions.
Instead, Detective keeps Abe and most of the others as subdued to the point of near blankness. However, this reserved feel seems surprisingly believable, as the film never embraces the contrived stiffness of the Wes Anderson oeuvre.
That comes as a massive relief, as Detective could – and probably – should turn into a twee, painful exercise in wink-wink nudge-nudge. As noted, the basic premise sounds tremendously “high concept”, but the movie never suffers from those pitfalls.
Rather than truly embrace the absurdity of the movie’s basic concept, Detective prefers to explore how Abe’s youthful success weighs on him and pushes him to pursue redemption. Abe clearly hopes that if he solves Patrick’s murder, he can finally erase the stigma related to Gracie’s disappearance.
This happens, but not in the way the viewer might expect. Not to spoil it, but the movie’s finale offers a surprising emotional twist that seems likely to prompt discussion.
The path toward that conclusion proves effective, partly due to the aforementioned understated tone. Where another movie would shoot for wild laughs, Detective stays wry and subdued, and it benefits from that approach
The actors help, as they avoid the flat blankness that mars Wes Anderson movies. While Brody plays Abe in a reserved manner, he still manages some emotion and seems like a complex human being.
Really, Brody’s performance helps tie together the movie. If he’d opted for a showier style, he’d have undercut the film’s strengths, but since he makes Abe a bit of an enigma, he adds power to the project.
Detective doesn’t do everything right, and parts of its climax seem a bit far-fetched. Still, it mixes comedy and drama in a satisfying manner.