How's this for a story line: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets ... well, let's not give it all away. "Like Crazy" is built on a premise so deeply ingrained in our cultural DNA that the narrative is the least important thing about it.
The romantic drama is the primal tale of two young people who begin by holding hands and move on to exchanging vows in search of something lasting. But it's the rapport between audience and screen that's the real love story here. The cast creates such a naturalistic sense of empathy -- a complicity, even -- with the viewers that we're swept up into their characters' lives.
Anna and Jacob meet cute (she leaves a "please don't think I'm a nutcase" mash note under his windshield wiper) and connect. She's a Londoner studying journalism in L.A.; he's a local boy majoring in furniture design. He knows nothing about her, and she knows nothing about him. No matter, there's a feeling.
They discover harmonies in their tastes. Both love Paul Simon's "Graceland," and they are initially in a state of grace together. She creates scrapbooks detailing her extravagant feelings for him; he builds her an angular chair, inscribing it "Like Crazy." By summer they are so besotted that they think overstaying her student visa is a mere trifle.
When she attempts to re-enter the country following a trip home, they find out otherwise. They are forced into a long-distance relationship, pledged to each other but separated by thousands of miles, and young lives are full of change and fluidity and giddy opportunity. His business begins to take root in California. Her career blossoms in England. There are other suitors. Have their romantic impulses made promises their personalities can't live up to?
Lead actors Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are spared the burden of being representative generational types. Director Drake Doremus encouraged his stars to improvise their dialog, and they create wistful, convincingly erratic individuals. Working at a slow-burn pace, Doremus avoids smooth transitions from one time period to another, allowing scenes from the past and present to bump against each other in ways that take some adjustment, and create suspense. The chronology is vague, but in the years the story covers, the characters age into young adulthood. It's not so much a matter of makeup as the heaviness of experience weighing them down, the way conversation evolves from chipper nonsense to clipped, impatient exchanges.
The camerawork moves from initial close-ups that isolate the actors' glowing, eager faces to more distanced compositions that place them in a busy world of background players and impersonal bustle. Later in their journey, when the hope and newness are gone, the "Graceland" lyrics "I don't want no part of your crazy love" carry an edge of stinging irony. The stars' weathervane facial expressions shift with a chilly autumnal wind. There's a sad inevitability to the final frames as the love story becomes a bittersweet cautionary tale. You wonder if they'll spend the rest of their lives together. You wonder if they should.