The Kid Detective (2020)
Written & Directed by Evan Morgan
When I was a kid, I was a fairly regular reader of the Encyclopedia Brown book series. Brown was a middle school student who worked as his neighborhood’s local kid detective. Each book had around ten interlinked stories that end on a cliffhanger. The reader is expected to notice an inconsistency in a suspect’s dialogue that hints at their guilt. I can say only once do I remember solving the mystery before checking the back of the book for the answer. Brown has served as an inspiration for many other kid detectives and many satire pieces on the genre recently. I recall The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno and Donald Glover’s Mystery Team as pieces of media that touch on the concept of child detectives turned adults.
Abe Applebaum (Adam Brody) was a kid detective when he was twelve years old and gained a fantastic reputation in his small town. Adults and children came to him to uncover who stole things from them or answer mysteries behind people they knew. Nineteen years have passed, and he’s now washed up, failing to discover who kidnapped the mayor’s daughter years earlier. The guilt he holds about this event has ruined his standing in town and, while he still has a detective agency, the cases he’s solving are pointless. Everything changes when Caroline (Sophie Nélisse), a high school student, comes to Abe and wants him to solve the murder of her boyfriend. This is the heaviest case Abe has ever taken on, and it forces him to revisit faces from his past, but the closer he gets to the answer, the more he starts to realize how broken he is from what happened in his childhood.
I was utterly wowed by The Kid Detective. I was expecting some self-aware Millennial take on the child detective trope, but I found a movie that blended together noir elements, satire, and some compelling emotional moments. Adam Brody does a fantastic job as Abe. It would have been easy to play the character as an asshole; he acts very irresponsibly and drinks until blacking out every night. But instead, Brody can play the role with deep empathy. Through flashbacks, we see how enthusiastic he was to be a productive member of his community, enjoying the praise from adults and peers. Abe felt important. The pressure put on him by so many people when the mayor’s daughter goes missing was totally unfair.
I was also surprised at how few punches the movie pulls. This is a very dark story, and the core case is about the murder of a minor. The town Abe has lived in his whole life has become a broken-down shell of what it used to be, paralleling Abe. Drugs run rampant, there are about three different gangs with territory in the city, the mayor hung himself after his daughter appeared to never be coming back home, it goes on and on. The script doesn’t ever let things get too bleak or heavy. Writer & director Evan Morgan balances the emotional weight with sharp comedy, and it keeps you engaged as the story unfolds. I was reminded a lot of Rian Johnson’s Brick, I think that film is a little more stylish and sharply written, but The Kid Detective is not far behind.
The story has all the elements you would expect in a noir film but is tailored to this specific world. Abe has to suss out the real culprit when questioning jealous nerds, the townsfolk who have lost all respect for him, and his own parents. Abe’s relationship with his mom & dad is one of the most complex and heartbreaking of the film. They were very proud of him initially, but that waned quickly, and now they just see him as a total failure. Morgan doesn’t flinch from how toxic and broken this relationship is, how nothing Abe does can get his parents to respect him, and that ultimately is what shatters him.
The final revelation of who the murderer is was genuinely shocking to me. It fits entirely with what Abe has been learning this whole time but is still a bit of a surprise. The final moments are incredibly dark, and the story refuses to tie things up in a pleasant clean manner. Caroline reminds Abe that he warned her about searching for the truth and how it often hurts worse than not knowing. That is certainly the case here. The truth about Abe’s town, this case, and himself is just too much for him. We leave the character at a moment where he’s at his lowest but also possibly the moment where everything about his life begins to change for the better.