Drake Doremus is a filmmaker born to play the Sundance game. Last year, Doremus brought his sophomore feature “Douchebag” to the festival. The movie contained a devious tale of sibling rivalry, and was shot with a shaky-cam style and semi-improvised performances, two aspects of production familiar to anyone keeping tabs on low budget American cinema. At the premiere, Doremus mentioned that he had seen the quirky mockumentary “Paper Heart” at the festival a year earlier, which inspired his emerging technique.
That derivative creative process places the writer-director firmly within the auspices of the Sundance family, where aesthetic tendencies often blend together rather than distinguishing themselves from the norm. Fortunately, Doremus has skillfully adapted to the formula he chooses to emulate. Following up “Douchebag” with the relationship saga “Like Crazy,” he puts together the right pieces for a perfectly tolerable and sometimes quite powerful romance.
In Sundance terms, “Like Crazy” qualifies as this year’s “Blue Valentine,” but it’s more observational about the details of a doomed relationship than relentlessly bleak. Doremus follows the travails of Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones), a pair of Los Angeles college students who fall immediately and intensely in love. Anna, a journalism major from the United Kingdom, leaves an adoring note on Jacob’s car before they even go on their first date. A few innocuous conversations later, they’re staring into each other’s eyes while listening to “Graceland” in her bedroom. Jacob meets and instantly charms Anna’s parents; later, they steal away to their inner lair and whisper sweet nothings under the blankets. The lighting is warm and the music upbeat.
Then the complications begin: Anna’s visa expires soon, and the looming deadline throws their future into question. On a whim, she decides to violate the expiration date and stick around a few days longer. In the first of several stylistic flourishes to mark the passage of time, Doremus frames his characters from above, as time rapidly passes by, until Anna finally leaves.
Having prolonged her stay in the United States, the couple inadvertently complicates their continuing prospects. When Anna tries to pay Jacob a visit, airport officials send her home, and the practical matter of a time zone difference begins to adversely effect their lasting communication. Finally, Jacob makes a trip to the U.K., and the couple start considering their options. Running out of ideas, they begin acting out, racketing up the emotional tension.
As the relationship grows increasingly strained, Doremus offers a terrific showcase for both actors. Yelchin, currently best known for playing Chekov in J.J. Abrams’s “Star Trek” reboot, has a natural vulnerability that plays into his character’s fragile nature. Jones, meanwhile, credibly exhibits a gentle naivete. As a result, they share an indelible and entirely realistic chemistry, even though the plot meanders along, occasionally becoming repetitive and predictable as their connection begins to fray. Doremus handles the ensuing drama well enough. You’ve been here before, but it’s not a bad place to visit.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? An unorthodox purchase by Paramount Pictures, the naturalistic style of “Like Crazy” doesn’t seem to mesh with the studio’s usual slate. However, it could do decent business if marketed as a smart date movie — “(500) Days of Summer” with less snark. Yelchin, currently set to appear in the “Star Trek” sequel, could also help raise the movie’s profile.
criticWIRE grade: B+