Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Starring Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Alexis Dziena

Directed by Peter Sollett

Rated PG-13

It took five years for director Peter Sollett to follow up his sparkling feature debut Raising Victor Vargas with his adaptation of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

And while the road along the way surely was littered with typical Hollywood stories about aborted projects and collapsing funding, he should take comfort in this: He has now established himself as cinema’s reigning genius of awkward young love.

A filmmaker might consider it problematic to be so pigeonholed. It becomes too easy to ignore the other facets of someone’s talents, like when Quentin Tarantino became “fast-talking, pop-culture-referencing super-violence guy” and the world conveniently ignored his moral humanism.

But it can also mean that a talented director gets to keep working. And when you’ve seen something as effortlessly charming as Raising Victor Vargas followed up with this sweet little keeper, you want Sollett to keep working.

He starts off with some pretty solid source material in this story of two bridge-and-tunnel teens who find themselves together on one New York City night. Nick (Michael Cera) is a sensitive guy still mooning over being dumped by his ex Tris (Alexis Dziena) when he’s not playing bass as the token straight boy in a queercore band. Norah (Kat Dennings) is Tris’ private school classmate who knows of Nick from the killer mix CDs Tris dumps in the school trash, and loathes Tris’s queen-bee pity. So when all three of them find themselves at the same nightclub, Norah pleads with “random stranger” Nick to pretend to be her boyfriend — only later realizing that this is “Tris’ Nick.”

It’s a set-up only slightly more gimmicky than the book’s device of alternating chapters from each protagonist’s — and each author’s — point of view. The devices that end up keeping Nick and Norah together for the rest of the night — alternately, tracking down Norah’s drunk friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) and finding a super-secret concert by their mutual favorite hip band — also could have ended up feeling forced.

But a meet-cute rarely rings hollow if the chemistry ends up working, and there’s clearly a zing between these two sarcastic puppy-dogs. Cera — and I’d like it on the record that this writer was noting his vintage Cusack-ian quality long before all the similar comments you’ll see relating to this movie — brings both instant likeability and a sly intelligence to Nick, while Dennings matches him in both categories. This clearly isn’t a case of opposites attracting; they’re two perfect-for-each-other kids simply trying to navigate through Nick’s need for closure and their mutual insecurity.

Sollett gets that, and Nick & Norah is best when the stars tiptoe their way through their initial connection. He gives them room to riff on Lorene Scafaria’s screenplay, providing plenty of tart one-liners like this: “If anyone is going to get raped in that van, it’s going to be a guy.”

Sollett knows when to back off and watch them getting to know one another, and he crafts one beautifully discrete sequence involving Nick and Norah’s initial … um, physical moment together. With Sollett at the reins, everything about this nascent romance feels genuine.

He’s not quite as successful when the plot drifts to peripheral matters. For a while the inebriated Caroline is out wandering on her own, leading to some broad slapstick like the ongoing saga of Caroline’s resilient piece of chewing gum. Cameos pop up with surprising — and distracting — regularity, including Andy Samberg, Kevin Corrigan, and Harold & Kumar‘s John Cho.

There’s the kind of teen-centered comedy an audience probably expects, and there’s the kind that Peter Sollett is comfortable working with — and they’re not always the same thing.

Sony Pictures’ marketing department certainly would be happy if audiences were lured with comparisons to another teen-centered comedy — last year’s Juno — as evidenced by the selling of Michael Cera and the cutesy scrawl-style font employed for the title.

Such comparisons aren’t going to do Nick & Norah any favors, because only the most superficial elements connect the two films. The dialogue may at times feel similarly precious, but the all-night odyssey here is anchored in two decent kids trying to get past the games to something real.

If we’re all really lucky, we’ll see Peter Sollett in that wheelhouse again before another five years have passed.