Like Crazy, Drake Doremus, 90 mins (12)
The Grey, Joe Carnahan, 117 mins (15)

The pain of young love thwarted is nothing to the relief at leaving it all behind

Judged on its premise alone, Like Crazy could be any old romantic comedy.

Its star-crossed lovers, Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, fall for each other just before they graduate from a Los Angeles university, but when Jones outstays her visa, and then tries to return to the US after a trip home to England, she isn't allowed back into the country. Much like Drew Barrymore and Justin Long in Going the Distance, Jones and Yelchin have to work out whether they can stay together when they're thousands of miles apart.

At this point you might expect Like Crazy to wheel on the laddish flatmates/gay neighbours to dispense advice and wacky subplots. But it doesn't. One thing that distinguishes it from Going the Distance et al is that it concentrates so intently on its protagonists, as they butt heads with immigration officials, and struggle with paranoia and irritability. Some reviewers have asked why Yelchin can't just move to the UK, but the film is mature enough to acknowledge that even people who are madly in love can have other things going on in their lives: Yelchin is establishing a business as a furniture designer in Los Angeles, while Jones is getting started as a journalist in London. Yes, they're desperate to give their relationship a chance to flourish, but do they want to be tied to one another at their age? Their hesitation is just one example of how uncomfortably honest Like Crazy can be.

The film is a low-budget comedy-drama written and directed by Drake Doremus, who based the story on his own experiences, and who is young enough to remember precisely how it felt. The dialogue is improvised, but instead of resulting in the babbling one-upmanship found in Judd Apatow's comedies, the technique makes for exchanges that sound like actual conversations. Much of the credit for this authenticity should go to the film's fine cast, including Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead as Jones's parents – the sort of parents who want to be their daughter's best friends – and Jennifer Lawrence as a colleague of Yelchin's. But the real revelation is Jones, who always seems nakedly genuine, even as she grows from giggly student to polished woman-about-town. It's impossible not to be charmed by the excited little dance she does when a present from her beau arrives in the post. Indeed, the film's weakness is that Yelchin's character is so reserved in comparison that we can't quite see why he inspires such adoration.

That quibble aside, Like Crazy stands up as a rich, personal love story, but also as a piquant distillation of what the young go through when they leave college pumped full of hopes and fears, before deflating slowly into adult stability. In some ways, it's the film that last year's One Day should have been. If you're older than Jones and Yelchin, you'll be simultaneously nostalgic and relieved that you're no longer living that life.

Liam Neeson plays to his newly minted action-hero image in The Grey, an Arctic-set survival thriller directed by Joe Carnahan. As one of the few people to walk away after a plane smashes into the Alaskan tundra, it's up to him to help the others fend off starvation, frostbite and wolves.

After its nerve-knotting crash sequence, The Grey lets some of its intensity seep away over the course of two talky hours: it's hard to invest in a life-and-death battle with the elements when the participants keep sitting around campfires, quoting poetry and reminiscing about their loved ones. On the other hand, it's a surprisingly tough and sober film, given that the last one Neeson and Carnahan made together was The A-Team. Shot largely in the open air and the freezing cold, it looks real enough to make you wish you had another jumper on, and it certainly convinces you that Neeson, with his gruff Irish authority and brick-wall physicality, is the man you'd want to have standing between you and a hungry wolf.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber surveys the wreckage left by Roman Polanski's latest, Carnage

Also Showing: 29/01/2012

Intruders (100 mins, 15)

A boy in Spain and a girl in England are both menaced by a monster named Hollowface. He isn't very menacing, unless you're scared by a supernatural anorak that hops out of the window whenever it's confronted by the girl's father, Clive Owen.

House of Tolerance (120 mins, 18)

Sure to be a favourite of teenage boys who happen upon it on Film4, Bertrand Bonello's elegiac depiction of life in a belle époque brothel boasts acres of slender young women lolling around in their corsets. But there's not much of a plot to distract those teenage viewers.

A Monster in Paris (90 mins, U)

Also set in early 20th-century Paris, Bibo Bergeron's cluttered cartoon features a giant flea with a beautiful falsetto (Sean Lennon's falsetto, to be exact), among far too many other elements.

Patience (After Sebold) (90 mins, 15)

In Grant Gee's haunting documentary, various writers and artists pay tribute to the author WG Sebald and his influential book, The Rings of Saturn. I'm happy to report that one of his most piercing insights came to him while he was in a pub reading The Independent on Sunday.

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