A little bit of narrative goes a long way in Aaron Katz’s “Cold Weather,” a listless twentysomething study with just enough of a mystery plot to broaden its appeal. The story of an apathetic college dropout who overcomes his ennui by investigating an ex-girlfriend’s disappearance, pic represents considerable progress for Katz, a founding member of the mumblecore movement. Building on the casually profound promise of “Quiet City” and “Dance Party USA,” “Cold Weather” gives micro-indie fans good reason to stay indoors if released on VOD or disc, though it looks sharp enough to benefit from bigscreen release.

Next to the chatty, relatively plot-free competition in the emerging DIY film scene, “Cold Weather” feels like an all-out genre movie, even if its lone action setpiece — a low-energy car chase — barely breaks a sweat. After giving up on a forensic science major in Chicago, Doug (Cris Lankenau) decides to board with his big sis, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), back in Portland, drifting between meaningless jobs as if trying to delay adult responsibility as long as possible. Fate eventually forces him to engage when an old flame (Robyn Rikoon) goes missing, giving Doug an excuse to practice his amateur sleuthing skills.

To Katz’s credit, things are interesting enough when Doug, his good-natured sister Gail and tagalong co-worker Carlos (Raul Castillo) are simply hanging out, though the mystery delivers the added allure of double identities, secret codes and a briefcase full of cash. Doug may worship at the altar of Arthur Conan Doyle, but his detective instincts are more Scooby-Doo than Sherlock Holmes — this despite a few amusing digressions, as when Doug interrupts his investigation to buy a pipe, hoping it will help him ponder the few clues they’ve been able to find.

Consistent with his cinematic peers (guys like Joe Swanberg, Mark Duplass and Andrew Bujalski), Katz practices a brand of comedy that is as much about laugh-out-loud one-liners as it is about the awkward, unspoken dynamic between characters. As lead actors go, Lankenau proves less expressive than the role requires. He nods his head a lot, but can’t seem to convey his inner feelings beyond the occasional Mark Ruffalo-like scowl. Still, he’s far more familiar (i.e. realistic) than the pretty boys who populate most studio fare, so it won’t be hard for auds to relate.

Since the brother-sister dynamic intrigues Katz more than trying to orchestrate a conventional whodun-whatever-it-is-that-got-dun, the enterprise takes on the laconic air of Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” as if to say the mystery is incidental to merely observing the various characters negotiate their situation.

Katz has always excelled at bringing a certain look and sound to his work, collaborating with composer Keegan DeWitt and d.p. Andrew Reed (now shooting on the Red) to give the film its overcast northwestern texture, as lens flares and scenic atmospheric shots help conjure a real sense of place.

“Cold Weather” seems to be in no particular hurry to arrive at its destination, and yet, when the end arrives, it feels like the beginning of a promising friendship.

Cold Weather

  • Production: A Parts & Labor presentation in association with White Buffalo. Produced by Lars Knudsen, Brendan McFadden, Ben Stambler, Jay Van Hoy. Executive producer, Jack Turner. Directed, written, edited by Aaron Katz. Story, Katz, Brendan McFadden, Ben Stambler.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Andrew Reed; music, Keegan DeWitt; production designer, Elliott Glick; art director, Joshua Locy; sound, Eric Offin; assistant directors, McFadden, Stambler; casting, Simon Max Hill. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Spotlight Premieres), March 13, 2010. Running time: 96 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Cris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Robyn Rikoon, Raul Castillo, Jeb Pearson.