"Like Crazy," the Grand Jury prize winner at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, is a semi-improvised, microbudget marvel with a range of feeling that shames most big-budget star-driven movies. It's so piercingly poignant that at times I worried it might devolve into wet-hanky sentimentality. I needn't have worried. It's the rare example of a film that manages to be both lyrical and tough-minded.
Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) are L.A. college seniors – she's a poetry-writing exchange student from London; he hopes to design furniture. She places a long mash note on his car's windshield one afternoon – it closes with the words "please don't think I'm a nut case" – and he takes a chance and calls her. Their ensuing romance unfolds on screen as a series of grace notes and ellipses. Drake Doremus, the director and co-writer (with Ben York Jones), is, like his lead actors, still in his 20s. His film is youthful in the best of ways. He and his cast are able to convey the sexy, giddy, terrifying landscape of first love because no doubt for them these experiences still have a freshness.
The characters seem to be discovering their emotions right in front of our eyes, and this is not simply because the scenes came out of improvisations. It's because the actors understand the essential seriousness of what they are attempting, which is nothing less than a delicate, layer-by-layer rendering of mirth and passion and heartbreak. Yelchin and Jones want to do justice to these emotions because so much is at stake in getting them right.
The emotional honesty of "Like Crazy," which is comparable to Richard Linklater's great "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," is far removed from most of what passes in these goony movie days as youthful romance. To categorize it as a rom-com would only devalue its delicacy. (The only other film this season with a comparable sensitivity is Andrew Haigh's "Weekend," a gay-themed English variation on a similar subject.) "Like Crazy" is comedic only in the sense that it displays the human comedy, junior division, in all its spangly confusions.
Chief among those confusions is Anna's mistake in overstaying her student visa because she can't bear to leave Jacob. Banned from re-entering the United States after a short trip back to England, she and Jacob endure, off and on, over a period of several years, the pangs of breaking up and recombining. Anna, in particular, seems stricken by her love for Jacob. She can't shake her feelings for him.
Doremus captures the deadening aloneness of their separations. It is often in the most crowded of situations, in bars or in clubs surrounded by friends, that Anna and Jacob seem the most alone. They can text each other or call across continents – and they do, often at inopportune moments – but the connection only confirms the absence. When Jacob impulsively flies to London to visit Anna, they both come alive, but the bewilderment remains. Closeness carries its own confusions.
We begin to observe widening hairline fractures in their devotion, and it's a terrible thing to see because Anna and Jacob seem so poetically perfect for each other. The dissolution, if that's what it is, of their love carries a symbolic weight. If these two people can't overcome these trials, then what hope is there for any of us?
Doremus allows his actors to work intuitively, as he does, and so we are free to make up our own minds about Anna and Jacob. As in all good romances, the love is never entirely equal between the lovers. Moment-by-moment we must gauge whose love is stronger, whose devotion is more likely to give way, who will patch things up or bust things up. No one is really to blame for any of this tumult, but in Anna and Jacob's wake are a host of good people upended by the couple's agitations, including Simon (Charlie Bewley), a smitten neighbor; Jacob's love-struck office assistant Sam (Jennifer Lawrence, in a small, pointed role); and Anna's relentlessly compassionate parents (beautifully played by Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead).
Doremus, often utilizing quick cuts, jump-cuts, and time-lapse montages, nevertheless gives us a startlingly filled-out portrait of Anna and Jacob. What he is saying is that it is in the off moments, the sidelong glances and captivating stares, that one can best capture the tenor of people's lives. There is a certain bedewed quality to this approach – Doremus, for example, never really shows Anna or Jacob having sex, although, tellingly he shows them, briefly, in the throes of passion with others. For a film about, among other things, the way sex can addle your senses, this omission may be too coy a ploy.
Still, we get the point: The consequences of love, or its absence, is where the real action lies. Few films are as good as this one at orchestrating the rejuvenations and dissolutions of a love gone right and wrong. Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for sexual content and brief strong language.)