In the past, I’ve lamented the decline of the PG adventure movie. Kids are either shunted off into family-friendly animated features or they’re thrust into the blockbuster fare of PG-13 summer tentpoles. It’s getting harder to find movies that are appropriate for the 9-12 set while also being terrific. Enter Enola Holmes, a cinematic and electrifying adaptation of a YA book series that focuses on Sherlock Holmes’ kid sister. Developed as a feature in part by star Millie Bobby Brown (who also serves as a producer on the film), Enola Holmes is a pure delight from start to finish that spins a captivating mystery yarn worthy of its protagonist’s surname while being family friendly enough that parents won’t have to worry about anything too dark scaring their young ones. With the skillful direction of Fleabag helmer Harry Bradbeer, a strong supporting cast, and Brown proving she can carry a project all on her own, Enola Holmes is a total charmer that will have you eager to see further adventures of this young detective.
Enola Holmes (Brown) was raised by her mother (Helena Bonham Carter) where education was constant and always coupled with her mother’s affection. On Enola’s 16th birthday, her mother goes missing, which leads to her brothers—Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill)—whom she’s never really known, coming to cart her off to boarding school while Sherlock tracks down mom. Enola, resolved to find her mother and not be a subservient lady to anyone, runs away and catches a train where she meets fellow runaway Lord Tweksbury (Louis Partridge), who is being threatened by a nefarious goon (Burn Gorman). Enola and Tweksbury flee and strike up a rapport, but Enola is eager to get back to the case of her missing mother. But Tweksbury’s helpless nags at her, and she decides she must also take up the case of the endangered lord.
At first glance these stories may seem disparate, but Enola Holmes holds them together through the sheer force of Brown’s performance, which has the advantage of letting the charismatic young actress break the fourth wall to address the audience. Brown has been a rising star since Stranger Things became a phenomenon, but even with a key role in last year’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, this is the first time she’s ever truly been the lead rather than part of an equally weighted ensemble. While Enola Holmes boasts an impressive supporting cast that acquits themselves well, the movie belongs to Brown, who shows why she’s an A-list talent. Her charm makes you feel like you’re a friend going on a journey with Enola and yet she’s also protective of her viewers. When the henchman threatens to drown Enola, she winks at the audience to let us know we’re in on the joke. You can tell that Brown is having an absolute blast with the role.
Bradbeer matches her enthusiasm step-for-step with an effervescent direction that mirrors his protagonist’s youthful vivacity. The movie frequently will cut back in its own narrative, not in a way that treats its audience like they couldn’t remember what happened 20 minutes, but to help put them into Enola’s thought process. The film is working to show a hyperactive mind at work and how Enola is constantly piecing everything together. When you factor in that there are two cases she’s pursuing, the flashback conceit works even better as it helps keep you involved with whatever Enola is solving at that moment. Combined with some lovely production design and an upbeat score, Enola Holmes knows how to hit its more dramatic beats while always maintaining a sense of adventure.
The film also cleverly flips the gender script by frequently having Enola dress as a boy and then pairing her with the more effeminate Tweksbury, who is positioned like a damsel in distress in need of saving from the heroic young Holmes. Their dynamic is so sweet, and yet the film wisely doesn’t make it the centerpiece of Enola’s journey. Her story isn’t about trying to find a man, but rather working to find her place in the world separated from her mother and brothers. That doesn’t mean cutting everyone out of her life, but it also means that her growth comes from her actions rather than settling into a romantic relationship. The film always keeps Enola’s journey as the focus rather than drifting too far toward either case to let it define her.
We may not get many PG adventure movies today, but even if we did, Enola Holmes would likely be among the top tier. The plotting is sharp, the characters are endearing, the adventure is exhilarating, and the direction is superb. If this is the beginning of a franchise, then Brown has chosen an excellent vehicle for herself, and I can’t wait to see the young Ms. Holmes solve more mysteries.
Enola Holmes arrives on Netflix on September 23rd.