Low-key and lovely, the independent movie “Cold Weather” opens with a shot of raindrops clinging to a pane of glass, a fitting introduction for a movie about characters who are revealed gradually, as if through a glass — not darkly, but obliquely. With brooding, expressive digital photography, a rooted sense of place and characters that seem as real as the people next door, the director Aaron Katz has created a lived-in world that’s so intimate and familiar that even with the story’s unexpected turns, you might not initially see its art for its everydayness.
The lead characters are a brother and sister, Doug (Cris Lankenau) and Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), who when the movie opens, have recently moved together into a small apartment in Portland, Ore. Although they have an easy, comfortable way with each other, they don’t seem especially close. A glimmer of tension flashes during a dinner they have early on with their parents when Gail raises and then quickly drops some issue between her and Doug. But because she refuses to get into it, quickly moving on with a wave of her hand and a short laugh, you never learn what if anything happened, which wasn’t the point of the scene anyway. What matters is her refusal to engage as well as the searching look Doug gives her.
As a filmmaker, Mr. Katz, who wrote as well as edited the movie (from a story by him and two of his producers, Brendan McFadden and Ben Stambler), approaches his themes in a roundabout fashion. Yet while many of the first scenes don’t seem to be overtly advancing any specific idea or even much of the story, each adds a subtle new note, a bit of texture, a thin layer of meaning. Here, meaning doesn’t come hurtling at you in great expository chunks, as it often does in movies, but through an accretion of true-to-life details, notably in the hesitant gestures, offhand exchanges and sidelong glances (Mr. Katz is an adept choreographer of looks not quite met), the sighs and visible longings of people groping toward one another.
Things happen: Doug, who has dropped out of college, where he was, somewhat surprisingly, studying forensic science and criminal justice — he seems far too laid back and self-preoccupied to be interested in exterior pursuits — gets a job in an ice factory. There, he meets Carlos (Raúl Castillo), a part-time D.J. who quickly becomes a friend. A former girlfriend of Doug’s, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), also materializes and soon the four settle into intimate rhythms. They talk, drink, go clubbing. Doug lends Carlos a Sherlock Holmes book, and you think nothing of it. But when Rachel, after failing to meet Carlos one night, seems to disappear, the plot suddenly thickens or really just very gently shifts focus.
That shift modestly quickens the pulse of the story, but also turns out to be something of a sly red herring. Embracing the role of detective (at last, all that schooling pays off!), Doug leads an investigation, with Gail and Carlos eagerly in tow, that takes the tale from one secret to another in quiet, sometimes off-kilter comic scenes that are often more Abbott and Costello (with a touch of the Hardy boys) than Holmes and Watson. The no-tech nature of the sleuthing (Doug ferrets out one clue by scribbling a pencil on a blank motel notepad, revealing the indentations left underneath by another hand) keeps the story in the realm of the plausible, even as the minor twists add slow-moving ripples of restrained excitement.
In time, the case is solved, though it’s satisfying that Mr. Katz is more interested in exploring the mysteries of other people than in playing around with genre. (He does like to play, too, as is evident in the joyful, goofy, almost-no-action climax that comes complete with disguises, running engines and slashed car tires.) As in his previous features, “Dance Party, USA” and “Quiet City” (available for rental and highly recommended), “Cold Weather” concerns young people moving from a preoccupying sense of self to an embracing understanding of another human being. With only the most natural of conversations and an exacting relay of close-ups, intimate two shots and meditative landscapes, Mr. Katz reveals how the self-knowing individual becomes known to others, and me turns into we.
That possibly sounds heavier than “Cold Weather” plays out onscreen, and one of the pleasures of this unassuming yet expansive movie is how it shoulders its weighty human subject so lightly. With no grand speeches or oversized gestures, Mr. Katz creates a specific world that gracefully enlarges with universal meaning. It’s a world in which a simple coffee table (carried home by Doug in the beginning) becomes the literal centerpiece for newfound friendship, as the four characters meet for the first time one night, hanging out while Keegan DeWitt’s tinkling percussive music keeps them company. As the camera (the cinematographer is the gifted Andrew Reed) moves around the table from one to the other, the warm light brightens their faces, pulling them out of the dark and toward shared discovery.