Photo: Gravitas Ventures

There’s something inherently strange about the kiddie detective genre, since the lives of shamuses tend to revolve around subject matter that is inappropriate for young people. Detectives deal with grown-up bummers like kidnapping, death, murder, threats, and various other non-G-rated subjects. The cult comedy Mystery Team and the Comedy Bang Bang podcast duo The Kid Detectives each mine the gulf between the sunny childhood innocence of the Encyclopedia Brown school of prepubescent mystery and the violent world of real-life crime (and crime-fighters) for big, dark laughs.

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The perplexingly light mystery Ace The Case, on the other hand, plays the kiddie detective genre straight and ends up a weird anomaly. The film is too violent and dark for kids but too juvenile and bland for grown-ups. The unexpected violence begins with the father of protagonist Olivia Haden (Ripley Sobo) being murdered. The idea is to raise the stakes, but Ace The Case doesn’t have the gravity to justify killing a character right off the bat, if at all. And the father’s death would have more meaning if he was present for more than a few minutes. It’s hard to become emotionally invested in a character with less screen time than the star of most insurance commercials.

A traumatized Olivia soldiers on, but when her mother goes on a trip and leaves her in the care of her bratty older brother, she has another unwanted skirmish with mortality when she stumbles upon a kidnapping, and has difficulty convincing anyone to believe her, except for Detective Dottie Wheel (Susan Sarandon). Alone among the performers, Sarandon finds the perfect tone for this material, delivering a performance that’s tough but winking, hard-boiled yet friendly. Only when Sarandon is onscreen, which isn’t often, does the idea of a family detective movie seem palatable.

Sarandon’s presence here feels like big-hearted but misguided charity. It’s a pity performance for a movie that otherwise has nothing else going for it, as evidenced by a poster that highlights a dog and a rabbit, both of which are very cute and neither of which are remotely central to the action. Why play up the presence of animals that are little more than bit players? Well, people like bunnies and dogs. They’re not liable to like the movie, however.

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Ace The Case would feel more at home as a Disney Channel or ABC Family Channel television movie, where the expectations and standards would be lower and a certain blandness is not just acceptable but encouraged. But were this the low-budget, basic-cable family movie it often resembles, scenes where our pre-pubescent heroine is threatened with being cut up—and another where she’s terrified by a pair of mentally ill men menacing her on a subway, one with tattoos all over his body—would feel even more jarringly out of place. Ace The Case engages with the realities of the crimes at its core just enough to be inappropriate for its target audience, but not enough to develop suspense. This is one of those frustrating mysteries where the real answer to “whodunnit” is “who cares?”

The weird tonal lurches reach a nadir in an end-credit sequence where Sobo exuberantly croons an upbeat synth-pop self-esteem anthem surrounded by girls apparently overjoyed to be in her presence. Ace The Case doesn’t know what kind of a movie it is, so perhaps it’s fitting that this bland cross between a generic R-rated thriller and equally generic kiddie fare would end by becoming, of all things, a glorified music video, despite the proceedings having absolutely nothing to do with music.