Travis Leamons // Film Critic
It is what it is.
We’ve all heard this expression. We’ve probably used it a time or two, either before rolling our eyes or after slumping our shoulders upon hearing some cockamamie story on the news. The pandemic, politics, the latest social movement: take your pick. A year removed from whatever the hell 2020 became – a heightened state of disillusionment in the heat of a global catastrophe, is my take – and it’s still a weird sensation. People buying up toilet paper like they were doomsday preppers, for goodness sake.
It is what it is.
When the mega-chain movie theaters were forced to close shop and studios started pushing its slate of heavy-hitter blockbusters off the calendar, the euphoria of smelling fresh popcorn and grabbing an overpriced Coke started to dissipate. But for smaller venues that got the go-ahead to open their doors, it offered a new problem: what are we going to show?
As a film lover first, and a writer about film second, I watched as a small Texas theater chain close, open, close again, and open once more in 2020. During the initial please-won’t-you-come-in stint, the programming was mostly catalog hits. At one point, classics by Steven Spielberg occupied a third of its screens. The rotation of older and pre-COVID shutdown titles persisted until Christopher Nolan’s TENET in late August. Following its release, and much to my surprise, Sony Pictures was providing fresh content to theaters, including these two titles now on home video.
THE KID DETECTIVE
THE KID DETECTIVE sold me long before it was developed. Growing up reading ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN books about boy detective Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown solving simple mysteries, I would wonder what Encyclopedia would be doing as a grown-up. This movie is the answer.
Young Abe Applebaum was quite the neighborhood Sherlock solving mysteries for a quarter apiece. After cracking some big cases, Abe got a key to the city, free ice cream from the parlor on main street, and the town gave him his own office with the mayor’s daughter, Gracie, as his assistant. But when she goes missing and Abe’s detective skills fail him in finding her, he is seen as a disappointment; the townspeople of Willowbrook look at Abe differently.
Here was a kid that was going places and doing good, and now the kid detective is just a kid. Abe had peaked in life and wasn’t even old enough to drive. Decades later, Abe still works out of the same office, solving two-bit mysteries while his parents wonder if he’s ever going to do something more with his life. Then he gets a shot at redemption with his first murder case.
THE KID DETECTIVE premise makes it sound like it’s lampooning the detective story when it’s actually a pretty sly private eye movie. Abe (Adam Brody) has grown up to be aloof and cynical, finding himself swimming at the bottom of a bottle and waking up hungover most days. Still cashing in those free ice creams into his thirties, Abe’s gloominess seems to have spread throughout the town. Once sunny and brimming with life, now Willowbrook is grey and inert.
Most detective stories are about following clues, forming a theory about the crime, and finding the culprit. Director Evan Morgan (THE DIRTIES) includes the familiar story tropes, though he’s primarily interested in his protagonist. As someone whose aversion to reading changed when introduced to detective fiction, the novels that hit me the hardest were less about the whodunit and procedural nature and more about character growth. How did this case change our hero?
Morgan gets it and offers us a nuanced character study in re-accessing individual achievements and how peaking early in life leads to a reality check. Abe thought he was extraordinary only to learn he wasn’t all that special. Brody nails the look of the adult version of a kid still carrying around a shattered ego. The love he had for solving cases as a kid is long gone, and now he’s just a guy going through the motions of the only thing he’s ever known. It’s a fine line, and Brody walks it well.
THE KID DETECTIVE is a pleasant watch, even if its themes and finale are anything but.
THE LAST SHIFT
Our second film, THE LAST SHIFT, stars Richard Jenkins as Stanley. He’s been working at the fast-food restaurant Oscar’s Chicken and Fish in Albion, Michigan, for more than 35 years. But he’s about to leave frying fish to take care of his dementia-stricken mother in Florida.
A high school dropout, Stanley never aspired to be anything more than working in fast food, making it easy for his employer to take advantage. Hired to replace him when he leaves is Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), a recent parolee in need of employment.
Stanley is old, white, and single. Jevon is young, black, and married with a child. Usually, age and ethnicity differences shouldn’t matter, yet it seems paramount when talking about Andrew Cohn’s first feature. Cohn’s past documentaries have covered subjects varying from sports to education, most emphasizing setting and environment, and he approaches THE LAST SHIFT similarly.
Oscar’s Chicken and Fish is a hole-in-the-wall joint that has been around for decades, with Stanley as the restaurant elder. He’s a hard worker but could easily be construed as a slacker, unmotivated to pursue anything other than the pursuit of making fast food nightly. Thus, it isn’t easy to empathize with him and his woe-is-me take on life. As Stanley’s replacement, Jevon’s employment is merely a stop-gap in his eyes. It’s not a life sentence. Jevon was a columnist who stopped writing. He just wants to put his troubled past behind him before moving on to more creative pursuits.
Each character has something to offer, but the narrative dissolves into scenes where both talk about race and privilege it undercuts both the story and the performers. Full of cliches and odd situations, I know THE LAST SHIFT is supposed to be this passing on the mantle of sorts and about growth, yet neither man really gets anything life-affirming in the exchange.
A better alternative is Miranda July’s KAJILLIONAIRE, which also stars Jenkins and is about a family of con artists and a stranger who upends their lives–their daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) in particular. Even better is THE VISITOR, where Jenkins (in an Oscar-nominated performance) plays a college professor who finds a Syrian and Senegalese couple living in his New York apartment. Tom McCarthy’s drama does an impressive job exploring the intricacies of what it means to be human.
Both THE KID DETECTIVE and THE LAST SHIFT are available on DVD and can be found on Blu-ray as part of Sony MOD line of titles.