It was difficult to feel excitement about much of anything throughout 2020, and a year full of non-traditional movie releases only dampened the mood further. Lockdowns led to delays in release dates for highly anticipated flicks like Halloween Kills, while many studios bit the bullet and sent their films straight-to-VOD. New releases skipping theaters and streaming directly to living rooms is a reason to be grateful, but it would be dishonest to claim film fans were thrilled with a year of underwhelming, highly-priced rental releases.
2020 did bring us some acclaimed, solid films despite hellish circumstances, though due to general fear and strangeness in every aspect of life, some good films went mostly unnoticed by crowds beyond critics. Even serious movie buffs missed many or most of last year’s new movies if they weren’t widely hyped or of specific interest to you personally.
Writer/director Evan Morgan’s The Kid Detective, a slick and surprising Canadian-produced comedy is one of those great 2020 flicks that caught shamefully little attention. It’s also a rare film that could be used as an argument against the commonly made claim, “There aren’t any funny comedies anymore.” It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2020 and caught high praise from critics for its funny and real performances, but after a quiet release to streaming it never exactly found a following or found its way into much online chatter. We need more light on this clever and poignant, hilarious indie number.
Throughout watching The Kid Detective I silently noted to myself, “This is the most laughs I’ve had with a new film in years.” Surely if a wider audience were aware of it, they would come to adore its honest, sharply funny perspective in looking at a sad but lovable and all-too-relatable loser stuck in a declining town. This is effortlessly authentic and funny, sorta sad, and not afraid to pull on the heartstrings. As a plus, it watches as energetically and smoothly as it plays, never feeling snooty or “independent dramedy”-ish. Morgan’s film is an understated, dark comedic look at a man-child who’s still trying to live out a childhood fantasy, much to the concern of everyone around him. That fantasy entails him trying to solve a murder case to help a teen girl who’s possibly the only person in town who doesn’t think he’s a fool.
Adam Brody plays Abe Applebaum, a 32-year old former child detective who’s still in the tiny town of his upbringing, trying to maintain his sleuthing business and scrape by. He’s a deluded, stuck-in-the-glory days binge drinker – single, stubborn, generally disappointing to his parents; not respected by his secretary (Marcia Bennett,) as he takes stupid little cases for children and old ladies. Despite the once-vibrant town he knew falling into decline, and its formerly loving residents growing to take pity on him, Abe holds onto the idea that solving the right big case could revitalize his business, reestablish his credibility, and make this town love him again.
That opportunity arises when high school student Gracie (Kaitlyn Chalmers-Rizzato) stops by Abe’s office to ask for his help in solving her boyfriend’s murder. Everybody, aside from Gracie and Abe, think it’s foolish for a washed-up guy playing pretend to tackle a murder case, but Abe develops a fondness for Gracie (though he’s unable to properly express it.) Additionally, he can’t let go of the chance to feel like a true detective again.
The case leads Abe to Gracie’s school, where he already has a relationship with Principal Erwin (Peter MacNeill) due to a missing person case from Abe’s childhood which Principal Erwin recruited him for. That case is still unsolved, and it replays in Abe’s mind while he follows clues, interrogates children, gets into blunders, and forms funny, interesting relationships with people of the town. Abe softens and sees reality more clearly. Gracie gradually helps unlock a genuine confidence that was initially only a facade. Clues lead to more clues and everything proves to be more connected than originally believed. The finale to this surreal small town excursion is the shocking icing on the cake (there’s a cake now.)
The Kid Detective has a lot going for it as a dramatic comedy with thriller elements, but its greatest strength is that it’s thoroughly funny. There’s far more to this eclectic flick than comedic value – It’s hard-hitting for adults who can relate, lightly intriguing, charming, and quite moving – but above all of its likeable qualities, Morgan’s film is an innocent, artsier comedy that delivers laughs, many of which come from subtle, hysterical lines or well-timed responses from great characters we know and understand.
Brody’s funny and complicated as Abe, with the comedic delivery a disarmingly arrogant slacker requires. Though Abe’s delusion is frustrating and he’s not an outwardly nice character, you feel for the guy. Perhaps that’s because I can relate too closely to being a person in the age range of 30 who’s stupidly still clutching a dream that isn’t apparent in reality. Abe’s refusal to let go of fantasy, move forth from what was, and just be an adult is relatable, no doubt. He’s a thoughtful enough character to make one question their own situation. Brody deserves serious credit for bringing that sad but captivating man to life. He’s unrelenting but defeated. Cocky yet insecure. He emits hope and has appeal despite being a miserable shell of a person. Subtlety and great comedic awareness go a long way for Brody, who half-smirks, flutters hopeless eyes, and mutters sarcastic lines through all of the universal beatings Abe is posed with.
What especially heightens Abe’s likeability is his growing friendship with 16-year old Gracie, who trusts and believes in Abe when nobody else does. She transitions from naively hoping Abe might be of help in digging beneath the surface of this brutal tragedy, to sincerely believing in his ability and rooting for him both personally and professionally. Though Abe avoids words like “thank you,” you can see the increasing appreciation for Gracie in his face. Chalmers is a spectacular presence as Gracie, making her feel like a well-rounded, considerate teen, wise beyond her years. She’s there to pity, but also to help us develop a similar affection for Abe. She pulls him back into the present and can deliver a snarky remark when it’s called for, although Abe’s secretary covers most of the snide responses.
Abe and Gracie’s friendship is a major point of charm. The chemistry between Brody and Chalmers is delightful, like that of a smart, curious niece and her lazy uncle who maybe needs encouragement from a young and hopeful perspective. Their dynamic is a pleasant change-up from classic “buddy” scenarios in comedy films. We’ve seen countless dude duos over the years, and plenty of man and woman pairs, but we don’t often get a grown man and young girl as budding friends in a comedy – at least not in a case like this where a relationship is appropriate and charming
Morgan adds another layer of heart to The Kid Detective by showcasing Abe’s town, which was once a busy, attractive all-American small town, inhabited by happy residents. It was a place where child detective Abe could carve out a name as a local legend. He was greeted with warmth wherever he went. The owner of the ice cream shop awarded him free ice cream for life. Present Abe, age 32 and depressing, now walks through a mostly vacant strip of town. No bustle in the streets. Graffiti covers empty storefronts. Local business owners scowl as Abe passes. The ice cream shop owner, without so much as a smile or hello, begrudgingly plops a tiny scoop of pecan ice cream onto a cone, unhappily sticking to his “free ice cream for life” promise. Capturing a weathered, unfriendly ice cream man who won’t even make eye contact with Abe is a funny, nice touch from Morgan.
While that forgotten, declining town/32-year old man, lost and stuck in the past side-by-side isn’t exactly a spark of inspired genius, it does muster up empathy in the viewer for both Abe and this sad little town. No matter what part of America you hail from, your state is home to many of these formerly spirited places where people actually loved living, that have since devolved into poor ghost towns. The Kid Detective offers a piece of home for everybody in terms of its setting, which Morgan paints with a funny cynics’ honesty. We all know an Abe type of person as well, quite frankly, but even if you don’t much care for his character, you know his progress would be progress for the town; thus you have to want the best for the degenerate detective.
Between Abe’s personal battle and his desire to feel valued, the disturbing case he’s taken on, and the generally miserable state of affairs in his current setting, there’s obviously serious subject matter being taken on in The Kid Detective. A teen girl’s boyfriend being stabbed isn’t exactly light. A lost adult who can’t let go of what was, especially when you’ve been that adult, is a concept graver and realer than that of what fun comedy vehicles usually run on. Yet this movie maintains the feel of being pretty breezy. Not 80s sophomoric comedy outing breezy, but this isn’t a dark indie comedy that takes itself overly seriously. Even while Morgan’s depicting a town crushed by the loss of industry or detailing a teen girl’s search for closure post-tragedy, the mood never gets melancholy or pretentious, and the quips and funny lines keep rolling.
Oddly enough, I found myself engrossed by Abe’s unwavering will, and saw eerily mirrored in his mental immaturity. Most open-minded young adults can see a piece of them reflected as well. We want our life choices validated by our parents. We want to feel value. Everybody feels some level of shame or embarrassment over their dreams, which we’re forced to mask with confidence. Morgan serves these universal struggles and human anxieties as themes in a clever fashion; never hitting us over the head with an idea or trying to draw too much importance from the subject at hand. As a viewer you don’t feel pandered to. You can also appreciate a rich but dry atmosphere and visuals and note that none of it’s “too much.”
More than a few fantastic lines stuck with me from The Kid Detective, but my personal favorite arrives when Abe shows up at the home of young a boy he suspects may be involved with the murder of Gracie’s boyfriend. Abe points out a fresh batch of cupcakes on the counter, and the kid says he can’t eat them because they’re for his sister’s class. Abe asks if it’s her birthday, to which the kid responds, “No she’s just not very popular.” A classic. Nothing outrageous, just a brilliantly written bit of dialogue. These bits of wit are what you’re getting with The Kid Detective – and they’re coming from excellent performers.
A start-to-finish smart, funny film that might force you to look introspectively or even romanticize younger days but won’t feel sappy or stuffy, The Kid Detective is a rarity in these times. You don’t often find a movie that can speak to your heart and make you existentially examine your place, but also entertain and make you laugh consistently throughout. Evan Morgan, without unnecessary flare, lays out the blueprint – light thrills, a real feel factor, characters with deep weaknesses, and great jokes. The Kid Detective clearly hasn’t received the proper attention and needs to be on more people’s radars, as I see this becoming a quick favorite among film comedy people. You can check this one out on Starz.