Two college kids sit across from each other at a booth. They are tentative, shyly smiling, and on a first date. The camera, set back a distance, is alert but respectful, and there is an obstruction – a pole, maybe – getting in the way of our full view. It blacks out the edge of the frame so that we only see one person at a time – first Anna (Jones), British and bucktoothed lovely, then Jacob (Yelchin), who is all gentleness. Director Drake Doremus (Douchebag) never goes to a two-shot, foreshadowing what will become a defining fact of Anna and Jacob’s future relationship: They do not share the same space.
That first date extends over several scenes; indeed, it’s the longest concentrated stretch we’ll see of the pair interacting. It’s an affecting sequence, playing like a sensory memory ping of that electrifying time in the early 20s when we invite strangers into our bedrooms to talk for hours and look nervously at each other’s mouths. Anna and Jacob move fast – like, crazy fast – and that, too, feels true to their age. The problem, for both the young lovers and the film, is what happens when the demands of adulthood encroach on their callow romance.
Flamed with love – and sex, I assume, although the film is rather modest about their particular passions – Anna overstays her student visa. (“We can stay in bed all summer,” she says to coax Jacob into her reckless stand against Homeland Security – and what heterosexual twentysomething male says no to that? – but Doremus’ time-lapse of their summer amounts to a photo album of snuggling.) Anna briefly disentangles herself for a wedding back in the UK, then finds herself abruptly, if unsurprisingly, barred from re-entry to the States.
The bulk of the film follows Jacob flying back and forth between Los Angeles and London for fitful reunions and visa appeals, broken by scenes of their lives apart. The script (credited to Doremus and Ben York Jones, though much of the film was improvised) is stingy with hard data. The timeline is vague, and we never entirely understand where they are in terms of togetherness – what the “rules” are – so that when we see new partners flit into the frame, it’s impossible to tell if these are betrayals or just byproducts of a mutually brokered plan to get by with warm bodies on their separate continents. Time-outs are implied but not seen in negotiation, instead relayed in conversations with tertiary characters. When we do finally get a whiff of real confrontation, Doremus cuts straight to some ill-defined but radically different future, where the rules have changed – once again, frustratingly – off-camera. Also drama-free: these new partners gained, who are weirdly worshipful despite their second-class status as seeming bed-warmers, and Anna and Jacob’s separate careers, which appear to advance effortlessly.
What Jones and Yelchin are delicate masters of is the relationship in miniature – the giggling closeness, the automatic ownership of the other’s hand. In one achingly authentic scene, they place back-to-back long-distance calls that hairpin from careful reserve to teary, snotting abandon; it had me startled and hiccuping back a sob. There’s no question that the actors and filmmakers have fashioned a compelling (if unformed) love story of a certain age – which is not to be confused for a love story for the ages. In its inability to explore Anna and Jacob’s evolving relationship adultly – with real care to the knotty nuances, an attention to the big picture and not just the artful, angst-ridden snapshots – Like Crazy is a pantomime of its sweet but depthless young lovers.