As child detectives the Mystery Team found small town fame solving kid-related mysteries like missing cats or lost baseballs. Now grown up, master of disguise Jason (Donald Glover), self-styled boy genius Duncan (D.C. Pierson) and Charlie (Dominic Dierkes) the 'Strongest Kid in Town' (who really isn't) come across as goofy weirdos still carrying on like junior sleuths. When little Brianna (Daphne Ciccarrelle) innocently calls on the Mystery Team to solve her parents' murder, Jason is at first hesitant. Until he sets eyes on Brianna's big sister Kelly (Aubrey Plaza). Whereupon Jason drags a reluctant Duncan and Charlie to confront not only what proves their deadliest case yet but also their own personal anxieties.
Mystery Team was a feature film outing for YouTube sensations the Derrick Comedy group, whose most notable member Donald Glover went on to achieve great acclaim as an actor, writer (creating among others the hit show Atlanta) and musician under his alias Childish Gambino. Here Glover co-wrote the screenplay together with Pierson, Dierkes, director Dan Eckman and producer Maggie McFadden. Inspired by the antics of such similarly oddball literary child detectives a Encyclopedia Brown or The Famous Five, the film lacks the polish of a studio comedy coming across at times like a collection of YouTube shorts connected by an over-arching high concept. Yet thanks to a welcome attention to character development, an endearing level of heart, wedded to the manic energy of the engaging ensemble cast, even the odd misfiring gag fails to derail its goodnatured flow.
While some of the humour leans towards obvious gross-out moments (i.e. when the team fish out a vital clue from a filthy toilet bowl), for the most part the laughs stem from inspired moments of silliness. Such as Jason and Duncan adopting a 'good cop, bad cop' routine on young Brianna, only to keep breaking character to reassure the nervous girl it is only a game. Or when the team don top hats, tails and snooty upper-crust accents to sneak into a 'gentleman's club' only to be confronted by a club full of believably rough-looking strippers. In moments like these the film's ramshackle nature works firmly in its favour, contrasting the inherent innocence of the overgrown boy sleuths with a sleazy milieu and a mystery that is way over their heads. On top of that pretty much every scene involving Glover's increasingly absurd disguises is absolute comedy gold.
In the capable hands of the creative team the central conceit of grown men acting like boy heroes in some kind of sub-Spielbergian adventure in a world that regards them as freaky weirdos develops into a surprisingly affecting fable about learning to embrace maturity while staying true to one's childhood ideals. Much as they would unravel a mystery, the team need to figure out what it is they want out of life in order to move forward. Alongside stellar work Pierson, Dierkes and Glover (whose star quality is readily apparent), Mystery Team also showcases a roster of comic talent that went on to make a significant impact. Among these Saturday Night Live alum Bobby Moynihan as the team's most 'reliable' yet slightly sinister informant, Matt Walsh and John Lutz as drunken revelers at an office party, Jon Daly as a shifty suspect, the wonderful Ellie Kemper in her debut role as sidekick seemingly caught in a similarly preternatural state of arrested development and Aubrey Plaza. While casting the deliciously dour Plaza as the token sensible girl dealing with manic man-children might seem like a waste of her sardonic talents, her role actually punctures clichés and dovetails nicely with Jason's plot arc. Meanwhile the mystery itself is well thought out and compelling with nifty twists.