“Love hurts,” the classic song lyric insists, “love scars, love wounds and mars.” If you are experienced enough to understand love’s fragility but still romantic enough to embrace its power, “Like Crazy” will put you away.
Deserved winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance, this story is as simple as two people mad about each other and as complex as intense relationships inevitably get. Spanning two continents and a number of years, featuring fearless acting by Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones (who took home a Sundance special jury prize), it brings both intimacy and delicacy to the push and pull of love, longing and regret.
Although stories of youthful passion are as common as sin, it’s rare for the result to be as honest and heartfelt, to draw us as deeply into its story as director Drake Doremus (who also wrote the screenplay with Ben York Jones) does here. We feel for these characters, worry about them, buy into their situation as completely as if they were our close personal friends. Maybe even more so.
Doremus is something of a prodigy, a 28-year-old who dropped out of high school (“I just wanted to write and direct, there was no time for chemistry and math.”) At 19 he became the then-youngest person accepted by the AFI’s Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies; “Like Crazy” is his third feature. Working here with cinematographer John Guleserian, who shot hand-held using a small digital camera, Doremus has gone for a loose, fluid look that allows the film to be alive to who its characters are in the moment.
Jacob (Yelchin) and Anna (Jones) meet as classmates at an unnamed Los Angeles college. He’s a quiet, dreamy local furniture designer, she’s a crisp and brainy British writer, confident enough to leave an affectionate note to him on the windshield of his car. “Please don’t think I’m a nutcase,” she writes at the bottom. He is charmed.
This situation is, of course, standard, but “Like Crazy” has wonderful instincts for bringing visual freshness to nominally familiar situations. Jacob and Anna’s first date, for instance, ends not with a kiss but with hands touching through a glass door. This film excels at making first love feel as first time for us as it does for the characters.
But love, in movies as in life, is rarely without complications. Because Anna is British and Jacob American, logistical difficulties arise, leading to decisions made casually and impulsively which end up having profound consequences, affecting their lives in ways they can’t begin to imagine.
The heart of “Like Crazy,” inspired by a situation in Doremus’ own past, examines how its characters deal with the strain of a long-distance relationship, how they cope with the ever-present shadow of impermanence and departure. The film leaves no doubt as to how strong Anna and Jacob’s love is, perhaps even stronger than they anticipate, but it has the intelligence not to pretend that knowing whether that love will be as strong as it needs to be is an easy question to answer.
The grace with which “Like Crazy” conveys this complex situation wouldn’t be possible without gifted stars (including the much-sought-after Jennifer Lawrence, seen here in a key supporting role) who excel at making their yearning palpable.
Yelchin, perhaps best known as Chekov in the rebooted “Star Trek,” expertly delineates the core quietness of Jacob, his tangible seriousness and sincerity. But as the more outgoing of the two, it is inevitably Jones as Anna who makes the strongest impression.
With experience in Britain in film, theater, television and radio, Jones had such a strong grip on her character from the get-go that Doremus took the risk of casting her on the strength of an audition tape she sent him before he had even met her. The actress responded with a star-making performance that is both intelligent and incandescent.
Doremus’ unusual working method helped his actors reach an intense emotional pitch. With a strong background in improv — his mother was one of the founding members of the Groundlings — the director had his cast improvise off of detailed scene outlines he provided. The results are so seamless you would not guess improvisation was involved.
“I wanted to feel these were real conversations, truthful conversations,” Doremus said in advance of Sundance, and it is the wonder and joy of “Like Crazy” that he succeeded so well.