The Long Goodbye February 9, 2021
On The Kid Detective and Let Him Go
be Applebaum (Adam Brody) peaked before he even got his driver’s license. When the now-31-year-old was a kid, he made a name for himself in his
hometown, the Norman Rockwellian Willowbrook, as a prodigy. Not at something typical like the piano or painting, but sleuthing. Before getting into middle school, this miniature Columbo became a go-to for classmates and adults alike to solve trinket-like mysteries for them — like where their cat went, who stole a school fundraising tin out from under the principal’s nose, how what looks like blood got on their dad’s convertible — when it seemed like calling the police would be too drastic a measure. Like the Encyclopedia Browns and Nancy Drews before him, Applebaum in no time became a both reviled and beloved (though more of the latter) figure around town — an unbalanced ratio exemplified by how one time, when an angry resident cut down his treehouse, which
Adam Brody and Sophie Nélisse in 2020's The Kid Detective.
doubled as his workspace, Willowbrook officials gave him his very own office. The earlier part of Applebaum’s “career” is, in his memory, rendered almost in watercolors. They were good times where it didn’t seem like he could fail and everything around him looked cherry-pie-and-white-picket-fence perfect and wholesome. “Sometimes I would lie awake at night and wonder if I was the smartest person in the world,” he recalls.
The colors and the goodness of the times decayed around the time Applebaum turned 15. That year, the daughter of the mayor (who also happened to be Applebaum's good friend and de-facto secretary) disappeared. Few expected that a rascally mini-detective would be able to crack the case; though, of course, one might hope for the best. But no headway was ever made. The vanishing and its accompanying question marks became seemingly permanent. Ever since then, Willowbrook, at least from our protagonist’s point of view, has remained a shadow of its former picturesque self — and Applebaum has concurrently gotten stuck in arrested development.
Though with 200 cracked cases under his belt — a feat he points out often — and his office still intact, Applebaum is more of a detective in quotation marks these days. He relies on bailouts from his worried parents and once-in-a-while takings-on of cases that might include something as milquetoast as finding out if someone is gay or not for a client with a crush to get by. (Applebaum’s conclusion in the latter investigation: maybe a little.) “I was so far ahead of the game, and then one day I just woke up behind,” he says. Old tricks are so stale now that he can’t taste their onetime novelty anymore; he’s better at guessing mystery-movie endings five minutes after the opening credits have finished rolling than he is the final twists of his often-simpler real-life cases.
Things eventually seem like they could turn around in The Kid Detective (2020), Evan Morgan’s amusing but bruising feature-filmmaking debut. That turning around, naturally for someone in Applebaum's profession, is contingent on someone else’s pain. During yet another slow day at the office, Applebaum gets a new client: a wide-eyed high-schooler named Caroline (Sophie Nélisse) whose boyfriend has been brutally murdered. The police aren’t making any gains on this outwardly peculiar case — why would an introverted bookworm get stabbed 17 times?— and so Caroline thinks it worth a shot to try her luck with the city’s second-best crime-solver. Applebaum is plenty aware that if he solves this case, it could turn his career around potentially for the better. But what might it reveal about this quaint town where everybody knows each other only to a point? His guilty conscience over his friend’s years-ago disappearance gnaws at him, too. What if another town tragedy evades closure, with him feeling like he should take a good chunk of the blame?
The Kid Detective trickily straddles the line between real-world gloom and all-grown-up Harriet-the-Spy cuteness (notice the overabundance of people with alliterative first and last names). It manages it pretty well. Never unduly pessimistic or excessively comic, it grabs us the way we imagine Morgan probably wanted it to. It has the tone you might expect from a children’s novelist catching up with the adolescent hero of their most beloved series years down the road: ultra-aware of their well-liked tone and style while knowing exactly how to give it a just-right layer of adult pessimism. If there were a sequel to The Kid Detective that picked up again 15 years in the future, would Applebaum have developed into a funnily cynical private eye in the Philip Marlowe mode? Exceptional in one of his few leading roles in a movie, the always-charming Brody feels plausible enough to make us want to see Applebaum go through the thankless life cycle of someone in his field.
The Kid Detective is unsurprisingly a little divorced from reality; the characters have about the depth you’d expect of the supporting players in a typical Hardy Boys mystery. At times I wished the movie would decide, even if for a few scenes, whether it wanted to lean more into the farcical or the gritty just to give it an additional — even if only fleeting — punchiness. (Like its main character, the film sometimes has an ambling haziness to it, and when surrounded by haze one typically wants more clarity than they’re getting.) But at its best it will astutely find the dark comedy shining through what on the surface seems like pure darkness, and sometimes vice versa — in keeping with the best of a lot of detective fiction. When The Kid Detective’s superficially happy ending introduces itself, the script can’t help itself from having someone reply to it with not an expected sigh of relief but a fit of tears. Another mystery is waiting to be solved.
n Let Him Go, two matriarchs are determined to “save” their families — and it doesn’t matter to them what it could cost. One of the matriarchs is Margaret (Diane Lane), of the Montana-based Blackledge clan; the
other is Blanche (Lesley Manville), of the North Dakotan Weboy family. Early on in the movie, Margaret, about to drive out of a grocery-store parking lot, notices her former daughter-in-law, Lorna (Kayli Carter), out walking with her new husband, Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain), and Lorna’s 3-year-old son and Margaret’s grandson, Jimmy. Before Margaret can so much as say hello, Jimmy drops the ice-cream cone he’s been nursing — a mishap to which Donnie responds by slapping his stepson hard in the face. (When Lorna tries to intervene, she gets hit too.) Margaret tells her husband, retired sheriff George (Kevin Costner), that she thinks they should intervene. But before Margaret can so much as offer Lorna a check-in call, they learn from a secondhand source that Donnie has whisked his wife and stepchild away to North Dakota to live with his family.
Sensing trouble, Margaret decides that she’s going to roadtrip to the state, nicely glazed tin cake to snack on in one hand and a handgun in the other. (She doesn’t want to find out that she should have one and then not have one.) Lorna can come with Margaret back to Montana if she wants to; but the latter isn’t going to come home without little Jimmy. She’s steady in her resolve; her mind has been made up. George, though skeptical of the whole “mission” — he points out that Margaret technically has no legal right to be doing what she’s doing — opts to come along, mostly to make sure his wife doesn’t get hurt. Once the graying couple reaches the Weboy family compound after some light quasi-detective work, they find out that Donnie’s abusiveness runs in this family, whose many adult progeny are so dependent on their mother that it seems there’s a certain cultish dependence on her. It's like this was its own community and she the toxic ringleader.
Like Margaret, Blanche will do everything she sees fit to preserve familial order. Only instead of offering generous slices of tin cake and promises of better futures like her sunnier spiritual twin, Blanche isn’t afraid of thinly veiled threats and, when need be, the use of a firearm or an ax to get her way. When she offers you a pork-chop dinner, you wouldn’t be overdramatic to think she’s glazed these slabs of meat with cyanide. Fitted with a frosty blonde wig, claw-like jungle-red nails, garish red lipstick, and an assortment of aging-bombshell outfits, Manville’s look and accompanying performance are the movie’s most striking features. She’s an over-the-top matriarch from hell whose laugh feels like an intimidation tactic. She’s the most not-of-this-earth facet of this otherwise naturalistic movie — either an asset or a detriment depending on your purview. (From mine, an asset, if a slightly incongruous one; this performance suggests Barbara Stanwyck in glamorous bad-guy mode.)
Although Let Him Go has the conceit of a campy family-feud-style Western, it surprisingly keeps its more soap-operatic instincts quiet. It’s more so a somber drama about an aging couple weathering life’s storms together, perhaps en route to self-sacrifice to ensure a brighter future for the one connection they have to their late son. (His death — brought on by a freak horse-riding accident — is briefly dramatized in the film’s prologue.) Some of the film rings false. The Weboys tend to feel cartoonishly villainous; a subplot involving a young Native American man (Booboo Stewart) who helps the Blackledges misguidedly makes him feel more like a plot-pushing spirit guide than a person. (When he offers his sad backstory, we think he could have had a movie all to himself.)
But primarily Let Him Go is an affectingly tender-hearted drama about grief, and the protection of any semblances of hope at all costs. (For the Blackledges, baby Jimmy is hope in corporeal form.) It’s all grounded by Lane and Costner, who, aside from being a credibly been-through-it-all-together couple, are individually excellent as people who, respectively, approach life in their middle age proactively and impassively. George tellingly notes to Margaret early in the movie that he sometimes thinks of life as a “list of what we’ve lost.” Margaret, by contrast, is unwilling to idly hold the cards life has dealt her when she has a chance to make something out of them. At this point in their marriage, their differing world views have become not setbacks but things they admire in one another — she respects his pragmatism and he her unrelenting drive. It almost doesn’t matter where, exactly, the narrative goes in Let Him Go. What keeps us engaged is finding out how George and Margaret will adapt, with the other person holding them steady.
The Kid Detective: B+
Let Him Go: B+