COLD WEATHER begins as a hipster cautionary tale—a corrective to the generational fallacy that following one's interests will result in gainful employment. Doug (Cris Lankenau) was studying forensic science at school, until he dropped out; then he did a brief stint as an intern in a kitchen before that "got boring." As the film opens, he's back in Portland, living with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), and he's just landed a job at an ice factory, where his educational background drew polite bemusement during his interview.
At its outset, Cold Weather looks suspiciously like another mumblecore joint about pretty, mopey people—not that there's anything wrong with that, especially when writer/director Aaron Katz reveals a keen yet sympathetic understanding of his lead character's predicament. But a few minutes in, against the gray streets of Portland, Cold Weather's true colors emerge: It's a sly genre fiction that superimposes a classic detective story over a moody mumblecore backdrop. Doug's ex-girlfriend is in trouble, and with the help of his coworker Carlos (Raúl Castillo), he follows a series of clues involving a baseball-statistics book and a name scrawled on a flyer for a porn site. And he buys himself a pipe—can't play Sherlock Holmes without one, after all.
Like all serious detective stories, Cold Weather is about more than just the mechanics of the crime being solved—and a good thing, too, because Cold Weather's actual mystery isn't terrifically compelling. (Veronica Mars could've cracked the case during study hall.) Rather than standing on its own, Cold Weather's whodunit plot offers a counterpoint to aspects of Doug's life: his relationship with his sister, his terrible employment prospects, his general aimlessness. Katz illuminates Doug's all-too-familiar plight without wallowing in it.
The discontent Katz establishes in Cold Weather's early scenes—and that I wish he'd mined even further—is that of a generation who were promised more than the current economy can deliver, facing the uncomfortable realization that an interesting major doesn't necessarily lead to interesting work, and somebody has to keep the people well supplied with ice. The urgency that Doug brings to solving the mystery is grounded in an unspoken sense of everything that his life is lacking—here, finally, is a chance for him to use those skills he went to school to learn, and to forge real friendships with Carlos and Gail. The mystery is trite, because the mystery doesn't much matter—what matters is the meaning it provides, however briefly.