There are ways to do tonal shifts in movies that work, but the way in which hipster mystery drama Cold Weather tries to do it doesn’t work quite as well as one would hope. The film is really two films in one – firstly, a straight drama/relationship story with the slight twist that the main relationship is a sibling one rather than a romantic one, and secondly, a mildly comedic mystery hinging on the main character’s background in forensic pathology and latent desire to be a detective.
Doug and his sister Gail have recently begun sharing an apartment, both hoping to get their lives back on track after drifting a bit after college. Doug takes a job at an ice factory, becomes friends with Carlos, another guy who works there, and the three of them do random hangout-y things for about forty-five minutes of the film. At some point, Doug’s ex-girlfriend Rachel comes back into the picture, not really in a romantic way, but just in a hangout-y kind of way. Until she maybe disappears, finally kicking off the mystery portion of the film.
The relationshippy drama part of the film is fairly routine in execution, and plays pretty much like any other indie film of this type, though I will give it some props for focusing on the sibling relationship rather than a romantic one (when Rachel does re-enter the film, you’d expect romance to rekindle and the film wisely doesn’t follow that path). The mystery part is quite charming a lot of the time, and the film does get a lot more watchable and entertaining once that starts, but by that time the damage is already done. There’s too much inconsistency in tone, it’s too uneven and unbalanced between the two sections, and honestly, the actors (with one notable exception, which I’ll get to in a second) are not good enough to carry the drama part off. Cris Lankenau is earnest enough as Doug, and you want to like him badly, but he nearly always feels as if he’s acting – you can feel him gauge how he’s going to deliver certain lines as he says them. Doug’s also not a very good detective, really, which I hoped might become a plot point but didn’t, leading me to suspect sloppy writing is coming into play as well.
The exception, and the one thing that kept me interested through the first forty-five minutes, and that got me fully on board for the last part of the mystery, is the actress who played Gail. I had no idea who she was then, but even in the first paragraph of my notes, I have written “I do like the girl, though – she’s got more going on.” And later, I wrote that the movie’s awesome whenever she’s on screen and dies a little when she’s not, and that’s pretty much true. Even though I liked all of the mystery parts better, the film only got really compelling when Gail fully entered into helping figure it out. Gail is played by Trieste Kelly Dunn, who became my biggest find of the festival after I saw her in this and then The New Year, which is currently atop my 2010 favorites list (review). She’s got an innate charm and relatability that I wish the rest of this cast had; there was a fair bit of squandered potential in this film (couldn’t the ice factory job have played into the mystery somehow, for example, especially since they spent so much time setting it up?), both in writing and acting, but Dunn squanders nothing and steals the film away from everyone else who had anything to do with it.