×

SXSW Film Review: ‘Arlo & Julie’

This offbeat comic mystery is a low-key, low-budget charmer.

With:

Alex Dobrenko, Ashley Spillers, Chris Doubek, Mallory Culbert, Hugo Zesati, Sam Eidson, Annalee Jefferies.

Jigsaw puzzles may not rank too high on the list of typical relationship hazards, but it’s the arrival of just such a puzzle that tests and threatens the bond between the titular characters in “Arlo & Julie,” a low-key, low-budget charmer that marks a pleasing shift into fiction features for writer-director Steve Mims after his 2011 documentary “Incendiary: The Willingham Case.” An offbeat comic mystery that doesn’t overstay its welcome at a spry 76 minutes, this adroit indie vehicle for actors Alex Dobrenko and Ashley Spillers is too modest in conceit and execution to achieve breakout status, but it should be able to assemble a small niche following.

Bookish, slightly spacy Arlo (Alex Dobrenko) and petite, good-natured Julie (Ashley Spillers) are a sweet young couple of three years: She works behind the counter at a restaurant; he has a desk job and writes journal articles about the Civil War on the side. Life is proceeding normally enough until one day, when they receive an anonymously addressed envelope with two small jigsaw puzzle pieces inside. The next day there’s another envelope containing four pieces, then eight, then 16 and so on, the number doubling daily, while the couple’s interest multiplies at a similarly exponential rate. Before long they’re completely hooked, waiting on their doorstep every day for the mail to arrive, letting their house fall into disarray, and calling in sick at work, just so they can stay home and work on the ever-growing puzzle.

It takes a dinner with their friends Trish (Mallory Culbert) and Rob (Hugo Zesati) — an on-again, off-again couple who hold up a neurotic mirror to their own more stable relationship — for Arlo and Julie to realize that the image in the puzzle bears a curious resemblance to the abstract painting hanging above their mantle, a rare and valuable piece that has been in Julie’s family for generations. To disclose much more about the plot would be unfair; suffice to say that both puzzles — the literal one and the larger, more teasing mystery of who sent it and why — are solved in due course.

The (slightly) deeper riddle here is whether the characters’ relationship can survive the secrets, resentments and quiet betrayals that emerge over the course of their investigation, their growing paranoia over the puzzle unlocking their buried doubts and uncertainties about each other. Ultimately a sweet, simple ode to the virtues of honesty and commitment in a relationship, “Arlo & Julie” may be a trifle at day’s end, but it’s a deft and pleasurable one — steeped in affection for its characters, not too in love with its own quirkiness, and marked by a nice retro flavor apparent in the jazz records Arlo and Julie play (which make up most of the score) and the playful iris shots used as scene transitions throughout.

Dobrenko and Spillers click nicely in roles that were conceived specifically with both actors in mind, anchoring a small but strong cast that includes Chris Doubek as an unusually erudite mailman, Sam Eidson as Arlo’s dry-witted co-worker, and Annalee Jefferies in a brief but crucial third-act role. The modest but good-looking production reps a close collaboration between Mims, a longtime lecturer in the U. of Texas at Austin’s Dept. of Radio-Television-Film, and 17 of his feature-film-workshop students, all of whom received pic credits as well as academic credits on the project.

Popular on Variety

SXSW Film Review: 'Arlo & Julie'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Visions), March 10, 2014. Running time: 76 MIN.

Production:

A Yokel production. Produced by Andrew Cottrell, John Wood, Joe Bailey Jr. Executive producer, Richelle Fatheree.

Crew:

Directed, written, edited by Steve Mims. Camera (color), Mims; production designer/art director, Kakki Keenan; sound, Korey Pereira; visual effects supervisor, Ben Bays; line producer, Joe Bailey Jr.; assistant director, Ethan Morris.

With:

Alex Dobrenko, Ashley Spillers, Chris Doubek, Mallory Culbert, Hugo Zesati, Sam Eidson, Annalee Jefferies.

More Film

  • ALACARTE_HOME

    Brazil’s Pandora Filmes Readies Country’s First Classic Film Streaming Platform

    Brazilian distribution company Pandora Filmes was founded by André Sturm in 1989 as the country’s first independent distributor of foreign and domestic, classic and contemporary arthouse cinema. Still pushing the envelope three decades later, Juliana Brito is representing the company at this year’s Lumiere Festival, looking for classic film titles to fill out the catalog [...]

  • Hannah Minghella

    Bad Robot Poaches TriStar Pictures President Hannah Minghella to Lead Film Unit

    In a surprise announcement Thursday, J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot revealed it has lured away Sony Pictures executive Hannah Minghella to lead its film division. Minghella will report to Abrams and Bad Robot co-CEO Katie McGrath. She will oversee both development and production. TriStar executive vice president Nicole Brown will take up the mantle in the [...]

  • Paul Dano arrives at the 71st

    'The Batman': Paul Dano to Play The Riddler

    Paul Dano is in talks to join Robert Pattinson in Matt Reeves and Warner Bros. “The Batman,” sources tell Variety. Though the studio would not confirm the role, insiders believe that Dano would be playing the classic comic book villain The Riddler. Dano’s casting comes on the heels of Jonah Hill turning down an offer [...]

  • Taylor SwiftMTV Video Music Awards, Arrivals,

    Vivendi's Third Quarter Results Up Nearly 17%, UMG Still Rising

    Vivendi saw its third quarter revenues increase by 16.7% to €3.97 billion ($4.4 billion) compared with the third quarter of 2018, once again boosted by the growth of Universal Music Group, while Canal Plus Group remained stable. For the first nine months of 2019, Vivendi’s revenues reached €11.3 billion ($12.5 billion), an increase of 14.6% [...]

  • This-is-Cristina

    FiGa Films Takes Salma Hayek-Exec Produced ‘This is Cristina’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Leading international sales agency-production-distribution company, FiGa Films, has snagged all worldwide rights to “This is Cristina” (“Ella es Cristina”), the directorial debut of Chilean scribe Gonzalo Maza, who has co-written four of Sebastian Lelio’s films, including his Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman” and Berlin Festival winner “Gloria.” “It’s a pleasure to collaborate with Gonzalo, whose writing [...]

  • 180423_A24_Day_03B_0897.jpg

    How Bright Bulbs Enabled 'The Lighthouse's' Tough Black-and-White Shoot

    Early in principal photography on “The Lighthouse,” writer-director Robert Eggers asked cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who was shooting on black-and-white film stock, if he thought they could capture the look they were going for digitally. Blaschke answered no: Digital wouldn’t let them achieve the texture they had in mind — “what we photography nerds would call [...]

  • Plaza Catedral

    Panama’s Abner Benaim Wraps ‘Plaza Catedral’ Starring Mexico’s Ilse Salas (EXCLUSIVE)

    Panama’s internationally best-known helmer, Abner Benaim (“Ruben Blades Is Not My Name”) has just completed the shoot for his second fiction feature film, “Plaza Catedral,” starring Mexico’s Ilse Salas (“The Good Girls”), and Manolo Cardona (“Narcos”). Salas plays a 42-year old grief-stricken woman, Alicia, who has severed her ties with married life and society. Her [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content