“Arlo and Julie”
Directed by Steve Mimms
Starring Alex Dobrenko, Ashley Spillers, Sam Eidson, Chris Doubek, Mallory Culbert, Hugo Vargas-Zesati
Anyone who’s ever put a jigsaw puzzle together before understands the acute stages of puzzle insanity. At first, it’s an exciting endeavor, like diving into a new George R.R. Martin tome or deciding that you’re gonna start hitting the gym again. After about twenty minutes of turning over white pieces, you already feel the first tinge of frustration, that beading realization of what you’ve just committed to. Finally, you’ve put together the exterior, that beautiful border to encapsulate all, fencing in that headless herd of jigsaw madness. Cue feelings of adequacy, and perhaps even ecstasy. Then comes the middle bits, the monotony of a sea of monochromatic shades, so unanimously uniform that you may as well piece them together blindfolded. Eventually, parties become frustrated, tensions rise and deep-seated issues simmer up between you and your in-it-to-win-it puzzle partner. Maybe you shout, cry, give it all up. Maybe even a table gets flipped. But what happens when a puzzle gets so out of control that it takes over your life? That’s exactly the question Steve Mimms asks in Arlo and Julie.
The answer? Well if you’re Arlo and Julie, you allow the obsession to take the helm, survive only on the sustenance of delivery pizza, let your career and relationships all but descend into shambles and pace in front of the parcel box waiting for the mailman like a dog for its master. “Mail?” you may ask. Well this cryptic puzzle – a triptych of muted oranges, reds and yellows – randomly starts showing up in the mail, arriving in increasingly larger sealed packets from Mexico. At first one piece is enclosed, then two, four, eight, sixteen and on and on until Arlo and Julie are faced with thousands of little cardboard zigs and zags and dozens of man hours needed to put it all together.
As the puzzle outgrows their cozy dining room table, secrets within their relationship come to light with both eventually wondering how well they know the other party. At first, their puzzly plight is admirable and Mimms’ uncertain direction leaves the floor open for what could be a vast highway of possibilities. Suspenseful elements slip in under the radar, adding a touch of foreboding to the otherwise squarely indie film proceedings. While we wade in the darkness wondering what all these little pieces will eventually add up to, it’s the two titular characters who must keep us entertained, and by the end are the only real components that make it worthwhile.
Julie, played by a geeky chic Ashley Spillers, is defiantly bohemian, perhaps so much so that she doesn’t even know it. Her smooshy facial expressions, shaggy bob and frumpy natural beauty all help to make her relatable. Her gorging on pizza makes her lovable. Spillers plays her well, offering a character you’d expect from an 80s Woody Allen flick with some real depth behind her quirk. Her partner Arlo (Alex Dobrenko) is a bit of a misanthropic dweeb. His mind always in the past (he’s writing what he believes is the great untold biography of Ulysses S. Grant), he’s got the inflated ego to fit his aspiring writer hat but it also makes him a bit of a challenge to really assimilate with. He’s a bit of a flippant kook, his conflated ideas of relevancy definitively hipster. Arlo is a guy you can only take in small doses but beneath his moppy-headed think box is a manchild who’s a bit mystified with the world at large, who treats love like a bit of a puzzle itself.
Cute and quaint, Arlo and Julie might be one of the better second-tier Woody Allen movies that Woody Allen never made. It’s mumblecore deadpan meets Austin angst, big city stressing in the near desert. The dialogue culled from a workshop on the neurotic and maladjusted, everything always feels an arm length from reality. The first two acts throw in enough quirk to keep the adventure light enough and often engaging. With some coincidentally staged entrances and exits, the screenplay seems cooked up by a career playwright. The staged contrivances kind of work but aren’t consistent enough to really sell the stage as a whole.
Undoubtedly the biggest problem that Mimms runs into is that he only gets limited mileage out of the quirky mystery aspects of the piece. By the third act, the tank is running on empty, all the lingering questions have been abandoned or shoddily answered and the film sputters towards a conclusion that’s slight and saccharine, even if it does fit the mood.