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Review: Don’t be fooled by the title — ‘The Kid Detective’ is a clever genre-bender for grown-ups

"The Kid Detective's" Adam Brody and Sophie Nélisse in a diner scene.
A once-celebrated boy sleuth played by Adam Brody is hired by a teenager, Sophie Nélisse, to take on a serious crime.
(Sony Pictures)

The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

“The Kid Detective” is an unexpected mix of disparate elements that in the wrong hands could have resulted in lumpy parody but, fortunately, pours out as something smooth, funny, dark and potent.

Imagine if an Encyclopedia Brown-like boy sleuth had cruised along, catching school cash-box thieves and the like, winning admiration from all — until he ran into an actual life-or-death crime and wasn’t up to the task. And it involved another kid. Flash-forward a couple of decades, and the young gumshoe (Abe Applebaum, now played by Adam Brody) has never gotten over that failure. The onetime toast of the town is an unshaven 30-something, beaten down by life, struggling to get by. He’s smart as ever, but no one really believes in him anymore. He barely believes in himself.

Abe has fallen to the level of dirty-secrets private investigator: Describing the “big case” he just finished, he tells his mother, “This gay guy wanted me to find out whether another guy was gay.” “Was he?” “Yeah. A little bit.” Then a young girl (Sophie Nélisse) with a dead-serious case shows up and he has to get it together or the consequences could be dire.

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“The Kid Detective”: Once, he was a celebrated boy sleuth. That was a long time ago. Now he’s finding that part of growing up is taking a very adult - and possibly lethal - case.

There are definitely pieces there of a slacker, gonzo comedy or a weighty gaze into the abyss. Instead, Evan Morgan, making his feature writing-directing debut, finds a wire-walking balance that makes Abe’s struggle real, funny and dangerous. It’s a kind of gentle, daytime, Canadian noir that occasionally reminds you of the seriousness of the stakes. It is not for kids.

There’s detail in the idiosyncrasies of the town and the people, yet it never gets cutesy. Even small roles are fleshed out — veteran actor Tzi Ma is just great in a brief appearance as a grieving father who is still every bit as formidable as he was before tragedy struck.

The film is effectively self-aware. When it seems about to tip into cliché, it yanks itself back from the edge. In that scene with the grieving parents, when the father calls hogwash on all the holes in Abe’s investigation, it bracingly deepens the risk by rooting us in reality. Morgan and composer Jay McCarrol let us feel the sunny mundanity of this small, friendly town, then drop in noir overtones.

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Adam Brody at his PI desk in "The Kid Detective."
Adam Brody’s performance as a hard-times PI helps to anchor “The Kid Detective.”
(Sony Pictures)

With a no-longer young-buck protagonist, Morgan also shows an ear for contemporary teen dialogue. When Abe questions a teen mixed up in some shady business, he says, “Your mom seems nice.” The girl’s blasé response: “She’s getting to the age where she thinks she’s too cool for me.” When a sweet character realizes she’d made some innocent false assumptions, she gasps, “Oh, my God. I’m such a racist.”

The mystery turns out to be compelling. The characters are well drawn, the acting strong across the board — especially in the gripping climax. For Brody, the role and performance are career bests (so far). And beneath the bells and whistles, “The Kid Detective” is actually about something. It’s a layered look at the loss of innocence. The way that theme plays out makes the movie’s resolution all the more affecting, including its final shot.

'The Kid Detective'

Rated: R, for language, drug use, some sexual references, brief nudity and violence

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: In general release, where theaters are open

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