Walt Disney, Dreamworks SKG(Walt Disney, Dreamworks SKG)

Elizabeth Banks and Chris Pine in People Like Us (Walt Disney/Dreamworks SKG)

As Hollywood encourages movies to get bigger and bigger - the better to justify those lucrative IMAX 3D ticket prices - the notion of a good "small" picture seems more appealing than ever. The drawback to a more modest production is that it's harder to get people to see it on the big screen; fortunately, movies come to disc so quickly in North America that a theatrical run is basically perceived as a marketing push for the DVD and Blu-ray.

Two of this week's movies, Sound of My Voice and People Like Us, try to make a virtue of their smallness. They're character studies, first and foremost, with stories that aren't easily rendered into single-sentence pitches; as a result they proved a little hard to sell on the big screen. Not that this should stop you from catching up to them now, of course.

I don't think Sound of My Voice would ever have been a theatrical smash. A no-budget science-fiction project written by director Zal Batmanglij and star Brit Marling, it's a quiet, subtle tale of two journalists (Christopher Denham, whom you'll be seeing again in Argo and The Bay, and Nicole Vicius) who infiltrate a cult to get closer to its mysterious leader (Marling), a woman who claims to have returned from a post-apocalyptic future to provide warning and instruction to her present-day followers.

If you caught last year's Another Earth, Marling's collaboration with director Mike Cahill, you'll have a head start on the moody, ambiguous atmosphere that makes Sound of My Voice so effective; Marling, Cahill and Batmanglij are a loose filmmaking collective bent on using the limitations of tiny budgets to explore big ideas from a human perspective. And yes, that sounds incredibly pretentious, but in practice it's quite affecting; both Another Earth and Sound of My Voice are ultimately about people trying to figure out what they believe and where they belong.

But where Another Earth played with paradoxes and duplicates, Sound of My Voice is more interested in faith. What draws people into cults? Is it fear, or hope, or a sense of community? How much of ourselves do we ever really share with the people in our lives? And how certain are we of our own futures? Those questions aren't easily shrugged off, and a movie that engages with them while still creating a coherent sci-fi mythology - should you choose to accept it, of course - is more than worth a look.

By contrast, People Like Us is a far more grounded project; it answers every question its narrative poses, making sure to tie everything up in a neat little package. And although it comes from Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who specialize in writing big-ticket genre projects like J.J. Abrams' Fringe and Star Trek (and Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy), it's entirely about the here and now.

Star Trek's Chris Pine stars as Sam, a New York wheeler-dealer who grudgingly flies out to Los Angeles for the funeral of his estranged father, a record producer of some notoriety. Sam's world is shaken when his father's will reveals the existence of Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a half-sister he never knew existed - and to whom Sam is supposed to give a considerable amount of money.

Stuck in Los Angeles until he can figure out what to do, Sam finds himself at odds with his mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) and drifting away from his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde). He contrives to meet Frankie, but can't bring himself to tell her who he is; he's paralyzed. But he does strike up a relationship with her precocious son (Michael Hall D'Addario), and is drawn into their family unit despite himself.

Not much happens in People Like Us, which irritated some critics during its theatrical run last summer; the movie dangles a few major plot points (like Sam and Hannah's fragmenting relationship, and the possibility of Sam facing serious consequences over some financial improprieties back home) but isn't terribly interested in following up on them because it's much more concerned with Sam's emotional turmoil. I can respect that, even as I understand how that trajectory slowly drains the film of dramatic momentum.

This is a very personal project for co-writer and first-time director Kurtzman - as he explains in the supplements, it's basically his own story - and perhaps it might have been better served had it been directed by someone with a little more distance from the drama. Kurtzman's directorial aesthetic seems borrowed entirely from Cameron Crowe; he's never met a scene that couldn't benefit from a little more golden light and a '70s song on the soundtrack, and the relationship between Pine and D'Addario skews uncomfortably close to Jerry Maguire. And the script tries to generate a great deal of suspense on the idea that Frankie might find out who Sam is, when of course the movie requires that revelation be withheld as long as possible to generate a crisis in the third act.

But Pine and Banks are never less than compelling, and Pfeiffer's pretty good - she's certainly more interesting here than she is in Dark Shadows, which also comes home this week - and the movie's final flourish really is lovely. Maybe People Like Us will find the audience it deserves on disc, or at least pick up a few people who'll defend it in conversation. That'd be nice.

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com