The film-makers: Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor

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The words "British cinema" and "art film" don't usually go together. But 2008 brought a surprise renaissance for idiosyncratic, highly crafted, defiantly non-mainstream UK-made films, from such names as Terence Davies (Of Time and the City), the artist Steve McQueen (Hunger) and the newcomers Joanna Hogg (Unrelated) and Duane Hopkins (Better Things). Next in line is the duo of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor.

Their debut feature, Helen, is a mystery thriller of sorts, about a young woman who volunteers to impersonate a missing girl in a police reconstruction. Eerie and psychologically insightful, the film echoes TV cop dramas on one hand, and Antonioni's glacial 1960s riddler Blow-Up on the other.

The duo met in Dublin in the early 1980s, and soon began operating under the banner Desperate Optimists. Since then, they have worked in a range of media, including video, theatre, internet and radio. "It's been a meandering route," Lawlor says. "We were using any methods we could to explore ideas." Ten years ago, they moved away from the stage and started to concentrate on the camera. As film-makers, Molloy and Lawlor are best known for their Civic Life project, a series of shorts, each shot in one day, using casts from community groups – notably Who Killed Brown Owl, a nine-minute single take in which an idyllic English afternoon collapses into chaos.

The team's next project, Mister John, concerns a man who goes to Thailand to confront his brother's demons. "It's imagining what would happen if my brother died,"says Lawlor. "My name is Joe, I have a brother named John, he does live in Thailand ... It's just using some of our biography as a springboard." They plan to shoot Mister John this summer. "It'll be more ambitious [than Helen] – that or more excessive."

'Helen' is released on 17 April