Don’t be fooled by the cheery ring of the Disney-esque title “The Kid Detective.” Severely misrepresenting the mature essence of writer and first-time director Evan Morgan’s smart crime caper, this innocent-sounding name might just be the result of poor creative judgment. Then again, it might also be purposely designed to pull the rug out from under the viewer, much as Morgan’s ambitious genre exercise often does to satisfying effect.
In short, you won’t find something as young-skewing as “Harriet the Spy” or “Encyclopedia Brown” here, as “The Kid Detective” has much darker ambitions in store. Splendidly summoning film noir-esque vibes, classically ghastly bad guys and femme fatale types out of a whimsical small town full of grotesque mysteries, this bold and often surprisingly humorous film — think of it as a more mainstream version of Rian Johnson’s “Brick” — grapples with themes related to murder and abuse, as well as the existential dread of its central recluse, who fell grossly short of the promising life he thought he was meant to have in his younger days.
The visceral negotiation between one’s former glory and failure-tainted adulthood is at the heart of “The Kid Detective,” haunting its sad sack of a protagonist, Abe Applebaum (Adam Brody). As we learn during the film’s relatively lighthearted first act — all sun-dappled, vibrantly colored cinematography and breezy Nancy Sinatra ballads — Abe used to be the star of his sleepy village as a pre-teen private eye. (Okay, so there is a kid detective in the story after all.) Solving minor whodunits for his community 50 cents a pop from his adorable tree-house office, he abruptly graduated from finding missing cats one day and scored his big break when he retrieved his school’s stolen fundraising money. This triumph earned him the endless goodwill of his town as well as an actual sleuth bureau, just like the smoky ones you’d see in languid ’70s detective flicks. But his winning streak came to a halt when a young girl from his school went missing — obsessed with the grown-up case he understandably couldn’t solve with his juvenile resources, Abe slowly fell from grace while stubbornly holding onto his PI credentials.
Frequently drunk and getting mixed up in petty bar fights, the down-on-his-luck now-adult Abe embodies something deeply sad, like the dead-end future of a one-hit band, or a celebrated child star who peaked too early before Hollywood gave up on him. (Perhaps Brody, beloved in his time on “The O.C.,” knows a thing or two about the diminishing returns of fame.) Once several steps ahead of any crime movie he devoured, Abe has now fallen behind in life and lost the patience of his community, a gloomy fact DP Michael Robert McLaughlin’s suddenly gray photography won’t let you overlook. Operating from the same dusty office with a dismissive Goth queen of an assistant (a sharp Sarah Sutherland), he barely makes ends meet through insignificant clients that are few and far between and accepts occasional bail-out cash from his unsympathetically nosy parents. But a second chance thankfully comes knocking when teenage Caroline (Sophie Nélisse) brings him a bona fide case, hiring him to find the murderer of her boyfriend.
The two team up, going down an intimidating rabbit hole of shady schemes that involves drugs, jealous nerds, cynical townsfolk and a chain of unforeseen twists, the culmination of which will make any devotee of physical movie theaters feel nostalgic about the collective audience gasps. Since these turns would be unfair to spoil, suffice it to say that Morgan brilliantly crafts a wild ride of seamless tonal shifts, elevated by polished production values, zippy editing and various narrative grace notes that honor his side characters — including the dead victim’s grieving parents Mr. and Mrs. Chang — with both compassion and wit. (A running gag about Abe’s age-old hiding-in-the-closet trick particularly lends the film a number of inspired giggles and cringes.)
But what’s most moving about “The Kid Detective” is the sibling-like bond between Nélisse’s Caroline and Brody’s Abe, written and portrayed with astonishing sensitivity. Recalling a young Laura Dern with her innocent, blue-eyed façade that harbors a stealthy sort of strength, Nélisse is raw and heartrending when her Caroline faces a number of hard truths in the end. Balancing her naivete with his hard-earned wisdom, Brody never overdoes or undersells Abe’s droll bitterness, ultimately establishing a wholesome chemistry with his co-star that is strangely comforting to witness.
It feels slightly rushed when “The Kid Detective” supplies some shocking answers for all its unknowns. But you will nonetheless be grateful for its generous, deftly considered reveals even when they arrive sooner than anticipated, as well as relish the time you’ve spent in this vintage world of secrets and lies, both entertainingly old-fashioned and defiantly fresh.