Thursday, April 29, 2021

The beat goes on: The Kid Detective

Writer/director Evan Morgan’s engaging feature film debut is a droll, slightly tart slice of PI whimsy. At times, 2020’s The Kid Detective seems to be taking place in a slightly existential universe not quite our own, where characters drop mordant, film noir-style one-liners without cracking a smile. At other times, matters turn real-world serious, and emotions are real-world familiar.

This delicate balancing act of tone is complemented by composer Jay McCarrol’s often mischievous score, which varies from tasty combo jazz to suspenseful atmospheric cues. The through line — the title character’s theme — is a quietly drawling melody with a 1-2-1/1-2-1-1 motif on piano, usually backed by low bass and thoughtful drums.


As an adolescent, Abe Applebaum (Jesse Noah Gruman) became a local celebrity in the cheerful little town of Willowbrook, Ontario, thanks to his facility for solving minor mysteries and wacky crimes. His successes resulted mostly from perception and an acute sense of psychology: the way people think and therefore act. Partly out of respect — and likely also out of amusement — the townsfolk even set him up in a downtown office, where good friend Gracie Gulliver (Kaitlyn Chalmers-Rizzato) worked as receptionist. But then she disappeared one day. Despite Abe’s best efforts, and that of the local police, neither she — nor her body — ever was found.


Flash-forward a decade and change. Now 32 (and played by Adam Brody), Abe works out of the same office, stubbornly solving the same trivial cases — finding lost cats, and so forth — in between hangovers and raging attacks of self-pity. He has become the town joke, barely making ends meet; even his Goth receptionist (Sarah Sutherland, hilariously condescending) treats him with contempt.

Enter Caroline (Sophie Nélisse), a 16-year-old orphan who brings him a real case, by asking his help in solving the brutal murder of her boyfriend, Patrick. Caroline is absolutely serious, her wide, guileless eyes radiating sincerity. To say the subsequent investigation proceeds in fits and starts would be an understatement. Although his intuition remains sound, Abe’s sloppy appearance and occasionally reckless behavior hinder more than help. None of this shakes Caroline’s faith; indeed, she even drives him from one lead to the next — Abe doesn’t have a car — and becomes a de facto partner.

Informants, suspects, red herrings and possibly related distractions include Patrick’s best friend Calvin (Dallas Edwards); a sexually frank and promiscuous older girl named Melody (Amalia Williamson); a notorious group of toughs called the Red Shoe Gang; a potent street drug dubbed “Ego Booster”; and a rowdy sub-culture of local youth — known as the “overnighters” — who spend weekends hanging out in the closed (and supposedly locked) high school.


Abe pursues all this with a blend of flimsy pride, wavering interest and fatalism; were it not for Caroline’s trust, we suspect he’d give up. Brody makes him the ultimate tragic burn-out: gaunt, lonely and still haunted by what he perceives as his failure to save Gracie. That said, Brody also has a stage comic’s timing for snarky one-liners and wry comebacks; many moments in this film are laugh-out-loud funny. On occasion, the clipped dialogue — in word and attitude — feel lifted from a Sam Spade movie; Brody’s delivery is that dry. But he never slides into genre mockery, and this dichotomy between his serious approach and the at-times arch dialogue also is amusing.

Then, in a heartbeat, things turn grim. Coarse epithets and reckless drug use remind us that this story isn’t entirely glib.


This atmospheric shift is echoed by McCarrol’s score. The first jazz cue is delightful: a mischievous 5/4 swinger, its 2-2-1-1-2 motif carried mostly by horns, against piano comping. This cue, titled “Willowbrook Then” on the soundtrack album, plays against a flashback montage of Abe’s many successes as an adolescent detective; the music and on-screen events suggest an air of youthful high spirits eventually shattered, when we return to the present day’s adult Abe.


“What was fun about compositing this score,” McCarrol explained, “was that Evan [the director] was adamant about it not sounding ‘too detective-y.’ He certainly didn’t want anything hard-boiled, which at times was challenging, because the film pays such homage to the genre. Instead, he wanted the music to reflect more of the idiosyncratic nature of his characters in their world.


“ ‘Willowbrook Then’ was the first big cue I did. I came up with a 5/4 hook that really captured a quirky, idyllic, throwback thing that was fun — even funny — without feeling like we were spoofing the genre. What helped me find an idiosyncratic approach to detective jazz is the fact that I don’t know my ‘jazz’ very well. I’m trained, but I’m not a jazz musician … so many of the clusters, harmonies and lustrous arrangements were first-time discoveries for me. I stumbled into some things that ended up being motifs used throughout the film.


“It also helps that the more sinister part of the plot unfolds with themes that are more modern in their support; shifting the tone made for some compelling sequences. In that sense, the score’s tone loses its innocence, a theme the film explores well.”1


During the exhilarating days of Abe’s youthful successes, the grateful owner of the local ice cream parlor promised “ice creams cones for life.” When the adult Abe now continues to claim this treat, the owner honors his promise but regards this “customer” with a disapproving eye; Abe’s subsequent walk of shame along downtown streets is backed by a melancholy 4/4 cue  (“Ice Cream Walk”) with a wistful keyboard melody that feigns a degree of cheerfulness, which contrasts with his loss of status.


Caroline’s arrival in Abe’s office takes place against a sparkling keyboard melody with buoyant “bell” touches that reflect the girl’s radiant personality. It’s the final “jovial” cue; from this point forward, as the murder investigation slides into increasingly bleak territory, McCarrol’s touches become pensive, tense and twitchy. That said, an undercurrent of Abe’s theme is evident in the moody flute and piano cue heard when Melody is interviewed; and in the atmospheric cue written for Rory Beans, a petty thief nailed back when both were in middle school, who hasn’t forgiven Abe during the intervening years, and takes every opportunity to beat him black and blue.

McCarrol’s final cue (“Outro”) is a gentle, contemplative piano theme that perfectly suits the fact that Abe has obtained closure, but neither satisfaction nor triumph.


The 15-cue soundtrack, running a brief 29 minutes — pretty much all the music in the film — is available solely as a digital download.



1. Email exchange with Jay McCarrol, April 26, 2021. 

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