Adam Brody in The Kid Detective

Uncovering Depression: Murder, Mystery, and Mental Illness in ‘The Kid Detective’

As a kid, Abe Applebaum (yes, that’s his name) was unmatched. An unusually gifted and adroitly aware child, he rose to prominence in his small, Northern town of Willowbrook for solving petty, chapter book crimes. Who stole the school’s community donations? Where did a neighbour’s cat run off to? He was good at it, and in the Old Hollywood way of precocious movie youngsters, he successfully charmed the hell out of every client he offered to help. All while nursing, of course, his distinctly adolescent crush on friend/assistant Gracie Gulliver. Gracie, however, goes missing, and despite the efforts of local law enforcement, neither they nor he can find any trace of her. For the first time, the titular Kid Detective has run afoul of a case he cannot solve.

Adam Brody stars as the kid detective trapped in a pernicious cycle of arrested development. Now in his early 30s (which, kudos to Brody, works despite the actor being over 40), Brody’s Applebaum is perpetually depressed, unable to achieve the ephemeral ecstasy of small-town celebrity again. While still working cases, they’re considerably less impactful than even the ones he had at fourteen. When he isn’t boozing or dealing, he’s chasing down a neighbour’s cat or going tit-for-tat with his new secretary, a delightfully droll Sarah Sutherland. The spotlight that once proved curative does nothing but burn now, and in whatever smoking embers are left over, all Abe can see is the face of Gracie Gulliver traced in the ash.

Though he won’t call it a comeback, Abe is given the opportunity to traipse and stumble toward newfound, reemergent glory when high schooler Caroline solicits his help in solving the murder of her new boyfriend, Patrick Chang, a gifted, cloistered high schooler the local police presume died in a drug deal gone awry, despite no physical or circumstantial evidence linking Patrick to the town’s (unnervingly) lively narcotics scene.

Some of this is candy-coloured David Lynch, a scathing critique of the horrors lurking behind white fences and drought-resistant lawns that, frankly, was dated long before the release of American Beauty. The familiarity of the narrative setup, however, belies the rich, textured, and sensationally poignant characterisation. With dark humour and the compelling, propulsive energy of a murder mystery (by all accounts, The Kid Detective is a whodunnit and a damned good one at that), the movie humanises late-in-life depression.

Even while working the case, Abe can’t help but drink himself into a stupor, miss appointments on account of oversleeping, and tepidly tiptoe around the young coed he shares a two-bedroom flat with. In a sense, he is almost resentful of Caroline’s unqualified optimism, her vivacious attitude, and perhaps most damning, the objective notion that she has considerably more years left to get things right, time that Abe, by most accounts, let slip away wasted.

He has no job, necessarily, clinging desperately to the dated, ostensible goodwill of Willowbrook. He still has free office space in the mayor’s office, and the local ice cream shop has held true to its promise that Abe is welcome to a free scoop any time he’d like. At fourteen, it was cute, and Abe was met with smiles and tacit approval. At thirty, he’s draining a well the townsfolk wish they’d never filled in the first place. It’s not resentment, but pity. Abe Applebaum is a carcass of promise, a walking bog mummy suspended in his own trauma and maladaptive, enduring adolescence. While the rest of Willowbrook is out living – dealing with crime, love gained and lost, and, yes, death – Abe Applebaum insists on still playing pretend.

Adam Brody in The Kid Detective

It’s a profound sentiment, one rendered all the more heartrending on account of Adam Brody’s pitch-perfect performance. With the all-American good looks, charm, and dry wit that defined his early career, Abe Applebaum is a fractured protagonist the audience can’t help but root for. For all the pitfalls and destructive decisions, Abe Applebaum is someone we want to succeed. Even after he stumbles naked from a dumpster following a particularly rough night of imbibing, we want nothing more than for him to go home, take a shower, and get back to the case. After all, someone has murdered Patrick Cheng, and we need Abe Applebaum to solve it.

That, though, is the problem, and writer/director Evan Morgan is searing in his indictment of the audience. The same sense of obligation and narrow purpose imposed on Applebaum by the town is imposed by the audience. Despite his waking depression and worsening substance abuse problems, the audience — like Willowbrook — insists on the improbable, perhaps the impossible. Solve the crime, physical and mental health be damned. Abe’s depression — once situational, now clinical — likely started when an assemblage of adults entrusted a young child with solving the disappearance of his best friend. Missing persons cases are hard enough for legacy investigators, let alone a fourteen-year-old whose most consequential case involved a stolen lockbox, a case we later learn Applebaum got disastrously wrong.

With the use of the murder mystery template, The Kid Detective cultivates our worst cultural impulses. We demand more and more and more — we salivate at the seductive allure of a detective getting it right — even at the expense of their mental wellbeing. Abe’s adult life was born of trauma, and like his parents, eccentric patronage, and Willowbrook, the audience insists on keeping him trapped there for our own selfish ends.

Abe, of course, does solve the case, and in a tonal 180, the movie lays bare the steadily lurking sentiment present throughout. A dark comedy shifts into a profoundly sad, elegiac meditation on life, death, trauma, and abuse. There is nothing funny about the final fifteen minutes, where motivations, the fate of Patrick and, yes, the fate of Gracie Gulliver are revealed. It’s liable to leave a pit in your stomach and a hole in your heart. We are the worst monsters of all, and in thinking only of ourselves– not our communities categorically — we ruin lives that once yielded so much promise, so much purpose. Not professional or aggrandized purpose, but purpose innate to the self. The purpose, and perhaps naturally endowed right, to simply live.

The Kid Detective closes not with a last-minute twist or concluding joke, but with a still shot of Brody’s Abe on his parents’ couch. Haunted by his life and legacy, he breaks down in tears, sobbing into his hands as the movie cuts to black. Abe Applebaum’s trauma and pain is no mystery. The culprit isn’t the maid. The culprit isn’t an ex. The culprit is all of us. Even at fourteen, that’s a mystery The Kid Detective could easily have solved.

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