“Like Crazy” is an exquisite, beautifully acted gem of a film, one that should serve as a prelude to bigger things for stars Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, as well as director Drake Doremus, who has grown by leaps and bounds since last year’s Sundance entry, “Douchebag.” Deftly limning several years in a difficult transcontinental relationship, and managing an impressive balance between big-hearted romance and gimlet-eyed wisdom, the film oozes appeal for date-night audiences and potential for some lucky distrib.

More than anything else, “Like Crazy” is a masterful feat of narrative compression — a quickly moving film that feels relaxed. Full of jump cuts, lightning-fast montages and decontextualized bits of dialogue, the pic contains nary an extraneous detail, while still managing to luxuriate in the tender and awkward silences of young love. At times it hardly seems to have been scripted at all, making it hard to tell whether the writer, actors or editor deserve the most credit for its verisimilitude.

Perfectly matched as actors, with equal screen time to devoted to each, Jones and Yelchin are Los Angeles college students Anna and Jacob — he’s a local with designs on a career making furniture, she’s a poetry-writing exchange student from London. In the film’s first scene, Jacob throws Anna a quick smile in class; in the second, she leaves a note on his car; and after a third, in which the two share a sweetly hesitant date and bond over Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” they’ve become a couple.

Interestingly, Doremus leaves out almost everything a more traditional romance would highlight (the first kiss, the poetic declarations of love, the sex), and the film hits all the harder for zeroing in on the subtler, quieter moments in between. Few films since “Before Sunrise” have lingered so effectively in the simple pleasures of watching two appealing, fully fleshed characters fall in love.

Upon graduation, Anna’s student visa expires, but not wanting to spend several months back in the U.K. awaiting a new one, she overstays her welcome in the States. After returning home and then flying back to L.A. to visit, she’s turned away by customs, thrusting the two into an abrupt long-distance relationship.

From here, the film loses its sugar-rush energy, and evolves into something more diffuse and more interesting. Both Anna and Jacob pursue their respective career paths, waiting for the INS to forgive and forget Anna’s visa transgression, and they begin to attract interested glances from interesting singles who are more conveniently located (Jennifer Lawrence, Charlie Bewley). There are off-camera breakups and reconciliations, and earnest text messages that arrive at the worst possible moments, and over time it becomes less and less clear whether their relationship is an inextinguishable true love, or simply an albatross that neither can shake.

Jones and Yelchin manage to register eight or nine distinct degrees of quiet ambiguity throughout, ranging from tenderness to spite, and Lawrence turns out the film’s most heartbreaking character, despite having little more than a dozen lines to her credit. Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead provide some warm humor as Anna’s garrulous, scotch-loving parents.

Production designer Katie Byron adeptly adorns Anna’s and Jacob’s respective apartments down to the finest detail, from half-empty bottles of dish soap in the sink to student-loan letters from Sallie Mae in the mailbox. Dexterous editing softens what could otherwise have been jarring cutting, and music and photography are largely strong, though both do betray a certain fashion-promo aesthetic in spots.

Like Crazy

  • Production: A Crispy Films presentation of a Jonathan Schwartz and Andrea Sperling production. Produced by Schwartz, Sperling. Executive producers, Zygi Wilf, Audrey Wilf. Co-producers, Marius Markevicius, Brian Buckland. Directed by Drake Doremus. Screenplay, Doremus, Ben York Jones.
  • Crew: Camera (color), John Guleserian; editor, Jonathan Alberts; music, Dustin O'Halloran; music supervisor, Tiffany Anders; production designer, Katie Byron; art director, Rachel Ferrara; costume designer, Mairi Chisholm; sound, Stephen Nelson; re-recording mixer, Andy Hall; associate producers, James Belfer, Siobhan Mahoney; assistant director, Matthew Henderson; casting, Eyde Belasco. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2011. Running time: 89 MIN.
  • With: With: Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlie Bewley, Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead, Finola Hughes, Chris Messina, Ben York Jones, Jamie Thomas King.