Like Crazy

By turns tender-hearted and heavy-hearted, director Drake Doremus’ spartan romance delineates the wrenching vicissitudes of first love as a fumbling long-distance relationship.

Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin play two sensitive college students of different nationalities — she’s an exchange student from London, a budding poet; he’s an American aspiring furniture deisgner — who find their prospects confounded both by immigration logistics and by having their whole lives ahead of them.

Yes, it’s complicated. Such a simple idea, and a good one, for a movie. A slender and handsomely indie production, “Like Crazy” was shot very cheaply on an “affordable” digital camera. The style itself is youthful, prioritizing heart-on-sleeve endearment over painstaking craftsmanship. It’s not fussy, just deeply felt. A couple of years ago, Doremus also made a movie called “Douchebag,” which I deliberately skipped at Sundance, because I was all, “Come on, a Sundance movie that’s actually called ‘Douchebag’?” Now I feel dumb for underestimating him.

Co-scripting with Ben York Jones, who also appears in a tiny supporting role, Doremus reportedly also encouraged his game and gifted “Like Crazy” actors to improvise; they rose to that challenge, honing the story by hewing to its barest essentials. (Charlie Bewley and Jennifer Lawrence also co-star, graciously.) What might all too easily have become a turgid assembly of rambling histrionics instead emerges as a shapely and evocative minor-key drama. To render this stuff with such precision, such obvious personal-experience familiarity, without mawkish aggrandizement or jaded judgment, is much harder than this movie makes it look.

Jones and Yelchin both very clearly value the work they’re doing, and sharing their intimacy — the togetherness and the separations — does therefore feel like a real privilege for the rest of us. Doremus also has a knack for the emotion-stoking transition, be it a courtship montage or a time-lapse dissolve through which the lovers fade in and out of each other’s spaces. The final result, though slight, seems like an essential movie love story, reveling not just in the headlong thrill but also in the true companionship of accumulated mutual history.

Some critics have touted “Like Crazy” as one of the best films of the year, and that claim has the air of political position-taking exaggeration. It’s not like movies have never shown the poignancy of evolving relationships before. It is rare, though, for them to do so without also insulting our emotional intelligence. That’s why Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” and “Sarabande,” or Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” seem so immediate and invigorating. That’s why it’s fair to hope that Doremus too might revisit his young couple in another film someday, when they’re less young and so are we all, to see how things have changed and maybe how they’ve stayed exquisitely the same.