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Within the framework of any good mystery is a well-modulated supply of red herrings, designed to wrongfoot us and the detective we’re watching, ideally enough to intrigue rather than irritate. In writer-director Evan Morgan’s unusual neo-noir The Kid Detective, it’s not just a suspect or a motive that’s a red herring, it’s an entire genre, a strange rug-pull of a movie that starts in the middle of the road before ending up off a cliff, in a way that both works and doesn’t, a fascinating gambit nonetheless.
We begin the film in a candy-coloured small town, a Sundance movie universe a whisker away from being too twee, where the improbably named Abe Applebaum (The OC’s Adam Brody) is living in the shadow of his former self. As the title suggests, he was a kid detective, gaining local fame at a young age for solving low-stakes mysteries, from a missing cat to stolen charity money, charming and impressing those around with his precocious pluck. When a local girl goes missing, Abe’s pre-teen skills understandably come up short and years later, he’s a local joke, the town drunk, an adult detective whose business has dried up. But when a high-school student asks him to find out who killed her boyfriend, he spots a chance for redemption.
Appearing out of nowhere, a theatrical release stateside announced with just a week to spare and a rushed trailer shoved out just days before, there’s something oddly well-suited to The Kid Detective’s jolt of an arrival. Morgan’s buzz-free buzz-kill will probably take its small audience by surprise, sight unseen, and for optimal viewing purposes, purists might prefer a total avoidance of specifics concerning the film’s dark tonal shift. But while not knowing that a shift is coming might make it all the more effective for some, there’s an argument to be made that even the slightest of forewarning will make a great deal of what comes before it that much easier to consume. Because while there’s a certain throwaway charm to watching Brody pleasantly shamble his way through what feels like a late 90s indie (it plays like a shaggy, if less potent, riff on Zero Effect at times although a prolonged setpiece involving a closet is incredibly, uniquely funny), there’s also a “Sure, what else?” overfamiliarity to the material, a slightness that makes it hard to deeply invest in what’s sleepily unfolding in front of us.
But in the last 20 minutes, Morgan wakes us up with a sharp left turn concerning both the nature of Abe’s investigation and the nature of Abe himself. It’s not exactly a twist per se but more of a step back to see the bigger, bleaker picture, the gentle quirkiness of the first act fading fast, the cutesy all-American facade of the town curdling into ugliness. What’s most surprising about the finale is how Morgan takes us to the brink and then leaves us there. After a reveal of startling nastiness, he softly skirts around a happy ending before, in a dour last scene, defiantly refusing to give us one. It’s almost too abrupt, with a beat or two missing, to truly land, but I admired its audacity and then how unsettled I felt after, like realising at a later age what really happened to your childhood pet who was “sent away to a farm”. Abe’s reheated slacker antics are reframed with a sudden depth and Brody’s performance works so well because of our limited expectations of him as an actor and the uncomfortable arc he shares with his character: of someone whose fame faded with age.
It’s a surprisingly deft turn in an odd little film that might not hit every high note but its diligent avoidance of ending up where we expect it to makes it hard to shake, a disquieting crime drama where solving the mystery isn’t enough to make things better.
Source: The Guardian
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