There's a period of life, post-university, pre-marriage, when you drift about for a few years, sometimes longer. Like a dinghy in an early morning fog, people find themselves rocking gently into one relationship-oriented boat slip after another, trying to find the exact right fit while anxiously worrying over the presumed whitecaps and squalls of permanent adulthood that they can hear over the lapping of time going by as it gently knocks against their tiny hulls. A port. A storm. Safe harbor. But where, and with whom?
Longtime Austin filmmaker and UT lecturer Steve Mims (SXSW award-winner Incendiary: The Willingham Case) captures that vibe and its particularly Austin quirk in his new feature Arlo & Julie, a sweetly comic gem of a movie that works with a tender touch on the perpetual puzzle of late-twentysomething love, obsession, and ... Ulysses S. Grant?
Trust us, it's going over like gangbusters.
"We've been playing all kinds of festivals," says Mims, "and it's really struck a nerve with people that are the age of the characters in the film."
And why not? Set in Austin's West Campus area, titular couple Arlo (Alex Dobrenko of Krisha) and Julie (Ashley Spillers of Two Step, Zero Charisma, Loves Her Gun) are squarely, not-quite-comfortably living together within that drifty phase. He's a historian with a passion for tipsy old "Unconditional Surrender" Grant, she works at a restaurant, and all is well, if a tad staid, when their lives are turned upside down by the sudden, inexplicable arrival of a single jigsaw puzzle piece which arrives, anonymously, via their chatty mailman (local favorite Chris Doubek, nearly stealing the show). And then, the next day, two more puzzle pieces, then four, eight, 16, 32, and on and on until they're so consumed by this weirdly Austin-y mystery that it becomes a full-blown obsession. They call in sick for days on end, the housework goes undone, they blow off annoying friends (terrific, hilarious performances from Mallory Culbert and Hugo Vargas-Zesati), and the emerging image formed by the chaos of the jigsaw becomes a perfect metaphor for their relationship.
"I had done a short with Alex," explains Mims, "and so over a period of six or seven months we met and talked about the grammars of the movie. We knew it had to be small, for budget reasons, but it's based on the core premise, which I'd been thinking about for a long time, about what would happen to you if you received puzzle pieces in the mail, and what you would think that was. And then eventually, no matter how stupid it was, you wouldn't be able to stop thinking about it."
For all its 512-quirkiness and the doubly endearing performances by Dobrenko and Spillers – and they're nothing if not endearing – Arlo & Julie remains, above all else, about a relationship in which neither person is sure what the future will hold, or where the future even begins for them. Julie actually comes out and says that it feels like she and Arlo are "drifting." Was that particular quandary something Mims had wanted to comment on from the start?
"Yeah, well, my daughter's that age," he says, "and this extended period of ambiguity for people of that age is probably historically longer than it's ever been, which is a blessing and a curse. The freedom of that is great, but it definitely makes things more complicated. I have to say I think it makes it more complicated for women than men. There's a window that they have that's not the same as men. That's not new, but it's certainly been facilitated by technology in terms of birth control, and then by culture. So it's really complicated, and that was one thing on my mind when I was writing it, because I just know a lot of people in relationships like that. I wondered, 'What's the thing that triggers a bigger commitment?' I'm not even saying that's necessary, but it's definitely a lingering thing. You can get into a routine and then, years later, realize you're still in it."
Spillers, speaking by phone from her home in Los Angeles, echoes her director's thoughts.
"Definitely. Everybody goes through that, but I think that these days it's such an epic journey in a way. There's so much possibility now in the world. Everybody's like, 'We can do anything,' but it's also overwhelming, and half the things you can do you can't make any money at, you know? For me, I went to St. Ed's in Austin, and I studied sociology and German!
"The way that I can relate to these characters in the movie is pretty funny. I did my sociology and German thing and when I [graduated] I was like, 'I feel a lot smarter and I know a lot about people and cultures, but I have no idea what I'm going to do.' I was lost, I had a bunch of different boyfriends and none of them were right. It felt like I was floating, with my parents constantly going, 'What is your plan? What are you going to do?'"
Ah, yes. Austin's historic and infamous "velvet rut." Say no more, Ms. Spillers. We've been there, too.
"Right! It's just so easy to, like, coast here. Go out, go have a margarita, go see a show, go out to a bar and see all your friends. In Austin, that's certainly a viable lifestyle.
"Eventually though, I realized that all I ever really wanted to do was act. I did it as a kid, I did theatre, but I didn't study it in school because I had so many options. But slowly I started dipping my feet back in and taking acting classes and ... yeah, here I am."
It has always been this way, but maybe no more so than at the present moment, when the cultural zeitgeist, whipped up by early expectations and late arrivals and the quick-creep, hurry-up of the digital era, seems overwound, bordering on a prosaic sort of panic. The present moment seems like forever, the future an overwhelming tide of too many possibilities.
What makes Arlo & Julie such a charmer – apart from the big ideas bubbling beneath its Saturday afternoon mystery surface and the unmistakable streak of Austin Weird that permeates the story – is the undeniable rapport between the pitch-perfect cast members. Spillers can do more with an eye roll and a biting of the bottom lip than most young actors can do with their entire body. Dobrenko, coming from a solid background in the massive local improv scene, turns in a performance that's simultaneously and believably spacey, passionate, and, as the picture progresses, deliriously, obsessively funny. And, of course, there are the two different types of obsession that constantly complement and comment on each other: the mystery puzzle and the mystery of love. It's the kind of film that, were it set in another city, could've gone in a downright Hitchcockian direction.
"Oh, totally," agrees Dobrenko. "Ashley and I are both in our mid-to-late-20s, and, for me, what was so magical about it and what drew me to the project is that there's this universal element to the story. The lengths that we will go, as people of this generation, to maintain this sort of prolonged adolescence coupled with the inability to commit, are objectified by the puzzle. It's a version of what we will willingly become obsessed with, no matter how big or small, to hide from and not deal with the much bigger issues that we don't want to face yet: settling down, committing, giving up our dreams. All the things that our generation has been blessed enough to be able to do in a way that other generations haven't."
Arlo & Julie opens at the Violet Crown Cinema, Fri., May 8. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.
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