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‘Kid Detective’ not just another YA feel-good venture

Dan Webster

Above: Sophie Nelisse and Adam Brody star in "The Kid Detective." (Photo: Amazon Prime)

Movie review: "The Kid Detective," written and directed by Evan Morgan, starring Adam Brody, Sophie Nelisse, Sarah Sutherland. Streaming on Amazon Prime, etc.

If you go to a lot of film festivals, you know the kinds of movies you’re likely to see. More to the point, you know what you’re likely not to see.

That simple truth was underscored to me early in the summer of 1993. I remember standing in line, waiting to see some art movie whose title I can’t remember at the Seattle International Film Festival. I couldn’t help but overhear a trio of fest-goers talk about all the great movies that they’d been seeing. And then one added, “Do you believe that people are standing in line to see that new Spielberg movie?”

All three shook their heads. “I’ll never go see it,” one said with a definite note of finality. After which there was more head shaking.

I think I went to see the film they were referring to, a little something called “Jurassic Park,” the very next day. As arrogant as I could be about my film opinions in those days, I tended to be open to all kinds of cinema, regardless of genre. And Steven Spielberg, especially when he’s making the kind of popular film that is his trademark? There’s nobody better.

I can’t say the same about Evan Morgan, the writer and director of a little film titled “The Kid Detective.” But then it’s clearly unfair to compare the two. Spielberg is well into his fifth decade as a filmmaker, while “The Kid Detective” is Morgan’s very first feature.

And while Spielberg is into big movie moments, especially when applied to the kind of mainstream fare that tends to feature killer dinosaurs, fortune-hunting archaeologists, wayward extraterrestrials or even soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy, Morgan has given us a film that is far more appropriate for the venue at which it premiered in September: the Toronto International Film Festival.

And by that I mean a film that is quirky. One that is a unique mix of the somber and the silly, that carries a title that could work for an episode of “Saved By the Bell” and yet, despite a persistent lighthearted tone, is ultimately a tale of reckoning and regret. Curious rather than cathartic, if it ever were to play at your neighborhood multiplex, it would likely be gone after a single week.

Adam Brody stars as the title character, Abe Applebaum, a 31-year-old guy who once was a whiz-kid detective, able to solve seemingly any mystery through an innate sense of logical guesswork that would humble Sherlock Holmes. But ever since he was faced with a case that he could not crack, that of the disappearance of a school classmate, Abe has been struggling – so mentally and emotionally blocked that it’s all he can do just to get out of bed to face each day.

And when he does, what confronts him is an office run by a secretary with goth-heavy indifference (played by Sarah Sutherland), walls full of framed newspaper stories that boast of his past glory and cases that require him to do little more than find lost pets.

Then, on cue, he’s given a second chance. A high-school girl named Caroline (played by Sophie Nelisse) wants him to solve the murder of her boyfriend.

And, of course, this is the point where someone like Spielberg, or Richard Donner or even Michael Bay, would concoct a plotline that would result in Abe solving the crime, winning the town back over, making his parents proud again by reclaiming the mantle of genius that had been his lost legacy.

Writer-director Morgan, though, opts for something different. Abe does work the case, and – spoiler alert – he does end up solving it. But the resolution he comes to is hardly a mark of triumph. In fact, what Morgan seems to be going for is a larger message about how self-deception can lead us down any number of wrong paths, and any kind of realization of that fact is likely to result less in a feeling of joy than in a sense of utter grief. As I say, a film-festival staple: quirky, curious and altogether something resolutely non-mainstream.

Which is not meant as criticism. Because it plays with – and perhaps even confounds – our expectations, “The Kid Detective” is one of those films that may nag at you for some time after the final credits roll. Partly that’s because of Brody, who TV fans may recall for his role in the Fox series “The O.C.” Brody plays Abe as depressed, needy, self-doubting and yet capable of, ultimately, seeing the difference between what he thought was reality and what was, at least mostly, just a fantasy.

So, writer-director Morgan may not be a Spielberg, which I’m certain would please the self-satisfied trio of festgoers I heard talking that summer day in 1993. But like his character Abe, he does have potential.

It’ll be interesting to see what he does with it.

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