Steve Mims' award-winning documentary Incendiary: The Willingham Case, concerning the forensic science of an arson investigation that ended with a death penalty conviction, got a lot of attention from critics a few years ago, but instead of staying the course as a whistle-blowing documentarian, he's followed it up with a deliberately unhip confection about a jigsaw puzzle mystery. Arlo and Julie might live and die as a "film fest movie," too small scale all around to get any real attention, but that's not to say it doesn't have its own moments.
Alex Dobrenko is Arlo and Ashley Spillers (Last Vegas) is Julie, a young couple pushing against the next-level commitment demands that they both feel. Arlo's trying to make it as a freelance history writer so he can ditch his call center job, while Julie seems right on the cusp of deciding whether or not she wants to be his support system forever. When someone starts sending the couple anonymous jigsaw puzzle pieces in the mail, they toss their pressing concerns to the side in favor of solving their little mystery.
Arlo is the more fleshed-out character between the two (certainly on paper), but Spillers' unusual energy makes a bigger onscreen impression as Julie. Together, they're a sweet, watchable pair, and the unfolding mystery is just interesting enough to keep your full attention. The pay-off is logical (if convoluted), and has real consequences to the relationship between the two, which deserves its own special recognition, seeing as how so many tiny indies think that the journey is its own reward.
I'm not sure what the life of Arlo and Julie looks like beyond the film fest circuit, but if it ever ends up in a dogpile of generic-looking indie films on Hulu someday, it's a quick, inoffensive way to spend an hour and a half. It teeters on the edge of twee, but the mystery at the heart of it all ain't half bad.
For other puzzle obsessives, there's Wicker Kittens (named after a specific Great American Puzzle Company jigsaw design). It chronicles the months leading up to an annual jigsaw puzzle speed competition at the St. Paul Winter Carnival. Amy Elliott's doc divides its time amongst a team of champions, challengers, dark horses, and family members as they prep for the big day.
Wicker Kittens is inexcusably short (52 minutes) for a film that's so entertaining. It's impossible to imagine there wasn't at least another half hour of great material that could've been worked in somehow (we barely spend any time with the competing family, for example). The stars of the film are the "challengers," a quartet of twenty-something underdogs bringing it to the established (cocky?) champions.
By being about a competition, even an unusual one, Wicker Kittens gets a big injection of sports movie vigor. You'll root for some and roll your eyes at others, and get a rush when the winners' names are announced at the end. Elliott gives us enough of an impression of all of the players to have us fully invested when the big game comes. We know who has a sense of humor about it and who doesn't, who hordes puzzles and who flips them in used bookstores, who comes up with new strategies and who steals them.
It's a hoot, and I never use the word "hoot." Though it's easy to imagine this as a kind of Christopher Guest-style piece, Wicker Kittens is quite gentle with its players. It never mocks nor condescends, though Elliott does tip her hand that she finds the whole thing delightfully odd. Unless you're elbows deep in it, it is delightfully odd. Obsessing over speed strategies for the quickest puzzle assembly is not something many of us do. But those folks are out there and Wicker Kittens does a grand job happily introducing us to them.