Last night it was announced that Drake Doremus’ romantic drama Like Crazy was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Drama, one of the top awards at the Sundance Film Festival.  The film, starring Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, is a look at what happens when a young couple falls madly in love, but is forced into a long distance relationship by no choice of their own.  This quiet movie snuck up on audiences at Sundance, building buzz late in the game, but winning hearts as the festival went on.  To learn more about this award winning sleeper, check out the rest of the review after the jump…

Like Crazy is the story of Jacob and Anna, a young couple who fall madly in love shortly before they’re set to graduate from college.  Their infatuation is so strong that Anna disregards the limits of her English student visa after graduating.  When she tries to return from the UK to be with Jacob, she is denied entry to the U.S.  The couple, clearly meant to be with each other, must then figure out how to make their relationship work from nearly half a world away.  But between their budding careers, the cultures of their respective homes (L.A. and London), and the sheer desire for companionship, things get complicated and messy pretty quickly.

The film’s strength lies completely in its two young stars, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones.  The film, shot from a 50 page outline rather than a script, relies on improvised dialogue and natural chemistry.  Yelchin and Jones both bring a vibrant energy to their characters, driving home the sense that these two are really in love with each other.  Yelchin, doing his absolute best to grow facial hair, looks more adult than he ever has, thus allowing the heavy drama to seem more appropriate for him as an actor.  Yet he still looks still boyish enough that the idea of first love is definitely not out of the question.  And Felicity Jones enormous, shining eyes and broad smile are enough to make anyone fall in love with her at first sight.  It’s like she’s got all the best facial qualities of Mila Kunis, Rachel Bilson, and Rachel McAdams, combined.

Another of the film’s actors, Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence, deserves special mention for her understated performance as Samantha, the girl who Jacob finds himself with when the challenges of distance from Anna seem insurmountable.  Her quiet devastation as Jacob wavers back and forth between which girl he belongs with makes hers one of the strongest performances in the film.  She stands out not as a villain, but an innocent victim of circumstance, and a reminder that collateral damage is nearly inevitable with young love.

Doremus’ previous film, Douchebag, was largely shrugged off by critics and audiences at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.  But he returns with newfound focus, and a softer touch with Like Crazy.  The film is well directed in the sense that it avoids the pitfalls of other “mumble-core” movies (heavy on dialogue, low on budget, and focused on every day, interpersonal relationships), by keeping itself from being too self aware and fraught with introverted neuroses.  Doremus seems particularly adept in extracting complex emotions from his cast, but keeping them from chewing up the scenery with the kind of large, loud acting that may come with emotional discussions and arguments.
But the film is not without its faults.  The relationship in question is delved into far too quickly.  We are given no reasons why these two are so in love with each other, just that they are.  They go from the awkward, “I think I like this person,” phase to fully head over heels without anything in between.  Doremus should count himself lucky that the two leads have chemistry strong enough to keep this from glaring at the audience throughout the film.  Also, there is not a clear sense of time in the film conveyed by the editing which, again, makes the audience question the authenticity of the story’s plot points, at times.  “Could they really fall so deeply in or out of love quite so quickly?  I suppose, with enough time, but how long has it really been?” was a thought that popped up more than a couple of times over the course of the film.

The film’s biggest flaw, it seems, is its insistence on maintaining a voyeuristic camera sensibility throughout.  We are constantly looking through door frames and around corners, as the story unfolds.  It sacrifices aesthetic for the sake of tone, the effect of which is unclear and unnecessary.  What is the benefit of alienating the audience from the characters by making them feel like they don’t belong there?  Furthermore, they’ve paid their hard earned money to see a movie; why not give them a cinematic experience, instead of cutting off a full third of the screen with a blank wall?

Like Crazy is the kind of romance film that ends up feeling more like a cautionary tale.  Long distance relationships are not as fun or cute as presented in the trite Drew Barrymore comedy Going the Distance.  They are complicated, messy, and frankly, often impossible.  But the sublime performances of Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones make this film more about the emotions one feels when they are in love, rather than the difficulty of relationships.  The actors in this film have earned their place at the top of a new generation of dramatic young performers, and will continue to be recognized for this as Like Crazy reaches more and more viewers.

Rating: 7.5/10