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.