Film, Foreign, Other

“Next Door Spy” is a detective story without a mystery

This review marks a first for my blog: TriCoast Worldwide Entertainment, a media company, asked me to review one of their films that will be released digitally later this month. Since I felt like I was running out of things to review (At the moment, I cannot justify paying $20 to view Scoob!, especially after everything I heard about it) I decided why not give it a shot?

I was hoping for something a little different. Something cute. Something funny. Or something unexpectedly dark. Films from distributors like this tend to fall into one of two extremes: either they’re absolute underrated masterpieces or they’re so bad that they’re fun as heck to watch -you know something Saberspark would review.

All screenshots are from TriCoast Worldwide

The unfortunate fate of Next Door Spy is that it falls right in the middle -into extreme mediocrity.

The movie follows 10-year-old Agathe-Christine (also known as A.C.)  who, along with her mom, older sister and baby brother, move to a new city. Agathe dreams of being a detective -but her mom wants her to stay out of trouble and try to make friends. Be ‘normal,’ yeah it’s one of those movies. 

While putting up fliers at a convenience store, the owner tells her about a string of thefts -she promises to catch the thief and immediately suspects her neighbor, a boy named Vincent. When she tries to find evidence, she gets caught and is forced to spend the summer hanging out with him to stay out of trouble. So she has a full plate -trying to figure out the culprit and dealing with her first crush.

From the trailer, I expected something more action-packed and mystery-filled, rather than an investigation into shoplifting. But since this is what I do now, and we all need a distraction from how America is slowly descending into a second Civil War, let’s examine this children’s movie.

A Not-So Mysterious Mystery

It’s not really a detective story if there isn’t a mystery. And there’s not really a mystery here. It’s not about finding the suspect -but rather proving why it’s Vincent. We’re never given any other possible suspects or false leads. There aren’t really any clues, because we don’t need any.

It’s painfully obvious from the start. And it’s pretty obvious to the audience, but not to Agathe why Vincent is stealing. And it’s not because the audience is privy to information Agathe isn’t -but rather because she immediately assumes Vincent’s old friend is human when she already knows he was forced to give his pet dog up.

It makes A.C. look stupid.

I also think my suspension of disbelief was broken when the shop owner had no kind of security system. This could be my American perspective, but shouldn’t a security camera be standard equipment at a corner store?

The film tries to take a fairly realistic approach to mystery solving -but I can’t help but think a more fanciful, action packed, conspiracy filled plot would have been far more interesting. Because of all the different factors, like the lack of a security system and a giant sentient talking lizard, I would have been far more willing to suspend my lack of disbelief.

While the film does try to create some tension and stakes with Vincent’s injury and consequent running away from home in the climax -the fact that he’s barely two miles from his own house seemingly dampens any worry the audience otherwise had.

A.C. gives herself a timeline of a week to solve the case, after the store owner gave her two, and the only consequence being she won’t get paid. Since it’s unclear for most of the movie why she wants the money and her family seems decently middle class -there’s also no reason for me to root for her other than the fact she’s the main character.

Aside from not getting paid -the idea that her failing at this first real job will forever ruin her dreams of becoming a detective – seems silly. It’s never made clear why she believes this or even if it’s true.

Like I understand that her mom thinks A.C. should be making friends as opposed to spending all day in her basement or breaking into houses. Nor does her mom love her being a detective, but she still lets A.C. have a whole set up in the basement, and she is never forced to give it up.

She’s mildly discouraged. Which sucks. But it seems like part of it is that A.C. has given up all interaction with other kids her age in order to pursue detective work and this isn’t the first time she’s done something illegal (like breaking and entering). From that stand-point I’m with her mom.

But I do understand A.C.’s disdain for the very girly clothes her mom picks out. And that’s where the second issue comes into play.

Yay. Gender Essentialism!

This movie is goddamn weird when it comes to gender expectations. The mom is shown to be a police officer or some sort of security official, but she’s oddly insistent that her daughter confirms to gender norms: dating, wearing lacy clothes and make-up and the like.

I presume in Denmark, where the film is said to take place -policing is still a pretty male dominated field. And Denmark is known as a land of relative gender equality. But either way-it feels incongruous to have a single mother working in a male-dominated field to encourage her daughter to give up her more masculine hobby and encourage her to fit into gender norms.

It just seems like a very odd behavior. There’s a lot of other ways the film could have taken this -namely wanting her daughter to fit in – that wouldn’t have felt so awkward with her established career.

Many of the characters -mostly adults – are constantly teasing Agathe about her obvious crush on Vincent that she doesn’t recognize. This is just a trope that kind of bothers me. Let kids figure this out for themselves and stop teasing them for having age-appropriate feelings. It’s just frustrating.

The only other female character in the movie -Agathe’s sister is your quintessential teenage girl only obsessed with getting a boyfriend. Who in this case is Vincent’s older brother -but she also doesn’t play a huge role or any in the film.

And this is just really weird to me. Usually in these girl detective movies, gender is either unimportant as a theme and it’s just girls solving mysteries or it makes a big deal out of the main protagonist proving the others’ biases wrong.

Instead, the movie exists in a weird middle ground where people bring up gender essential ideals a lot -but they never really get disproved, but that’s also never a defining factor for Agathe. She definitely has this “I’m not like other girls’ attitude,” which really, we need to do away with all together.

It’s also odd her mom would have spending all this time with a boy. But I think it would have been far more interesting for Agathe to have a female companion and learn that it’s good to have friends, and they both introduce their interests to each other.

And we don’t have to deal with an awkward romantic subplot with pre-teens. 

Flat Characters.

I know this is a kid’s film. A kid’s film aimed at a young demographic but that’s no excuse for how dull and underdeveloped these characters were. I have so many questions about A.C.’s family.

Where’s her dad? Why did they move? Was it because of her dad? Was it something else? Why isn’t the reason for the move expanded on? What was A.C.’s investigating like before the move? Why doesn’t she want friends?

All we get is her saying, having friends takes away from investigation but narratively that makes no sense. We don’t even know why she wants to be a detective in the first place, which is something that would really add to the story.

Vincent has no personality – I can never quite read him. They try to make him into a kind of loner-bad boy kind of character, but it just doesn’t work. Cause, you know, he’s 10 and this is a fairly grounded movie. The only thing I understand about him is that he loves his dog -but is upset at having to give her up when his older brother starts to develop allergies.

I never knew you could develop allergies that late and I guess allergy meds don’t help -but the fact he gave his dog away only to steal her back makes no sense. But I guess that’s child logic.

Nothing in the story really connects well. It just doesn’t work -no suspense, mystery or anything you would expect from a detective film.

The most intense scenes are Agathe’s fantasy sequences -which are fine, but it would be cool to see her actually consuming detective media since she’s so familiar with noir-esque tropes and aesthetic. She seems more like somebody who likes the idea of being a detective as opposed to somebody who wants to be a detective.

Seriously. Why is the lizard there?

The Lizard -who I don’t think ever gets a name, if he did, I forgot it – is so out of place in this movie. He hatches out of an egg she brings with her, and he just lives in her “office” living off of God knows what slowly growing in each scene he appears in and talks with an annoying lisp.

It’s the most out-of-place element in the whole film.

I assume that he was supposed to be a manifestation of Agathe’s doubts and self-esteem. But it still makes no sense within the narrative itself. The egg is obviously real -her mom notices it and mentions it. But if the lizard is real, why can it talk? If it isn’t what happened to the egg?

It feels so out of place in this film that for a good portion of the movie, I kept thinking that some kind of secret government agency, was going to factor into the plot which would explain the origin of the lizard, and then she and Vincent would have to join forces to stop the real bad guys from bulldozing over the skate park or something.

The whole thing just feels so tonally dissonant and out of genre for the film – like the vestige of an entirely different draft.

Cultural Dissonance?

Now, this film was produced in and is set in Denmark -which isn’t a place I know a whole lot about. So I have to assume that some parts of the film -like the casual cursing, the relationship between the characters and their parents and so on are due to the cultural differences between our countries.

 Though the one thing that bothered me the absolute most was the version I was watching – a dub -kept referring to the convenience store as a kiosk.

In the States, a kiosk is usually more like a stand than a shop as there’s no indoor part or even more often it’s basically providing info or selling tickets. It just felt really odd and I kept referring to it as a convenient store because it felt clearer.

And this could just be me personally- but the shopkeeper fell a little too closely to anti-Semitic stereotypes: he’s got the big nose, the Yiddish accent and tends to be cheap. He’s not evil, but it isn’t a great look for him or for the show. It just made me a little uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure how to take it.

The animation style in this movie is pretty interesting – kind of like a children’s drawing with the characters. So I was kind of expecting a more whimsical tale. But it didn’t feel like the mouths were moving properly and a lot of the movements felt rigid.

With everything that’s happening in this world, in this country it seems silly to get upset and write like five pages on an animated children’s movie. But you can’t spend all your emotional energy either on processing the events and trying to find ways to help. I haven’t gone to a protest –and I know as a white Jewish person I have that privilege and I’m trying to help in small ways -small monetary donations, checking in with friends, smaller things. I suggest if you can, you do that as well if you can.

If anybody has some Black-directed, Black-led animations I would really love to see them! All of you readers, please stay safe and healthy. Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet apart, even you’re gonna protest. 

And that’s the scoop.

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Score: 4/10

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Will be available for streaming beginning June 16 on multiple platforms

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