Arlo & Julie, surreal suspense comedy, not rated, Violet Crown Cinema, 3 chiles
Arlo & Julie, a low-budget independent film written and directed by Steve Mims, is a finely paced off-kilter comedy incorporating so many different stylistic elements that assigning it a genre is like looking through a kaleidoscope. Turn it one way and it’s a sort of sweet romantic comedy with hilariously knowing references to academia, hipster culture, and pop psychology; turn it another and it’s a challenging depiction of how trust grows in a relationship, with a plot about the true value of art. It’s also a thriller that’s part Nancy Drew mystery and part Raymond Carver domestic drama, with a dash of slapstick.
Arlo (played by Alex Dobrenko) is a computer programmer and aspiring historian with an interest in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. His girlfriend of three years, Julie (Ashley Spillers), is a very supportive waitress whose mother would prefer she stop living in sin. He has just published an article in an academic journal — for which he earned $25 — and she has just received a puzzle piece in the mail. She doesn’t know who sent it, but the return address is in Mexico. Each day after that, she receives double the number of puzzle pieces, so that eventually there are 16 pieces, then 32, then 64, and on and on, arriving in increasingly larger envelopes. Soon, Arlo and Julie are ignoring their other responsibilities to put the puzzle together, certain they are solving a mystery. The puzzle begins to resemble a painting given to Julie by her eccentric aunt.
The tone of Arlo & Julie is simultaneously screwball and dark. There is nothing naturalistic about the film, but the acting is very good, and the story is continually surprising. The supporting characters include a caring co-worker of Arlo’s and a fantastically pretentious, unhappy couple they don’t really like but are friends with anyway.
A truly good movie made on a shoestring budget is a rare gem. Spillers has a timeless quality reminiscent of Carole Lombard, which Mims happily exploits, and this enhances the charming absurdity of some of the musical choices and camera angles. One of the more surreal aspects of the story is Arlo’s slightly antagonistic friendship with their postal worker, who also has an interest in Grant. The relationship makes obvious the influence of the old Blondie and Dagwood movies of the 1930s and ’40s, which starred Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake. Dobrenko bears a striking resemblance to Lake — he has his wide-eyed double takes down pat. If Mims decides to make more movies with the same couple, he would surely have an audience.