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Austin-based comedy ‘Arlo and Julie’ shines

The Austin-based comedy “Arlo and Julie” was one of the most pleasant surprises at 2014’s South by Southwest Film Festival, and it’s finally being released in Austin theaters. Director Steve Mims, who teached at the University of Texas, previously was at the festival in 2011 as the co-director of “Incendiary: The Willingham Case.”

Arlo (Alex Dobrenko) works at a software company, but his passion is in writing about history. When the movie begins, he’s celebrating a $25 check that has arrived in the mail from the publisher of a piece he’s done about Ulysses S. Grant and the Civil War. His girlfriend Julie (Ashley Spillers) works as a waitress, and they live a quiet and rather unassuming life near campus.

The film is broken up into title cards indicating how many days into the story we are. On Day 2, Julie gets an envelope in the mail with a puzzle piece in it. This keeps developing, day after day, until the couple have befriended their mailman who also happens to be a Civil War enthusiast. As they wait, not so patiently, for the mail to be delivered each day they begin to lose focus of anything else happening around them. By Day 12, they have several hundred puzzle pieces spread out on a dining room table, knowing that they’ll never be satisfied until the puzzle is solved and they can determine why this is happening.

In the meantime, Alex learns that a painting that’s hanging in their modest living room and was given to Julie by her aunt is actually worth up to $1.2 million. By slowly connecting the dots, they begin to realize that the puzzle pieces might have a connection to the valuable work of art. It takes quite a few more days to figure it all out, but along the way they have a road trip that tests their relationship and makes them question all of their sleuthing up to that point.

Dobrenko and Spillers are delightful in their leading roles. Their comic timing is flawless, and they have a tremendous chemistry, pushing the story forward even as it starts to get a little wacky.

On a technical level, the film’s widescreen cinematography handsomely captures the city of Austin on a limited budget, and Mims uses music from old 78s — all in the public domain to boot — to underscore the film’s screwball comedy inspirations. Eighteen members of the crew were University of Texas students, as Mims has taught in the RTF department for more than 15 years. They built sound stages on campus and also shot on location around town.

“Arlo and Julie” is wonderfully charming and a fine example of our creative community at work.

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