On the surface, Spike Jonze’s Her may seem like a cautionary tale about the mind-boggling role technology plays in our lives (and how it’s only getting mind-bogglinger). But make no mistake, this story of a man and his Siri-like operating system falling in love is also a heartfelt tale of connection and intimacy and emotion.

Set in the indeterminate future, Her follows loner Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) back and forth from his job at a virtual letter writing company to his solo life in a high-rise apartment. He’s a year removed from a divorce (though hasn’t signed the papers yet) and seems to have no desire to even strike up a conversation with anyone.

His interest is piqued, though, when he sees an ad for a new operating system that promises interaction like never before. Sure enough, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) cannot only keep tabs on Theodore’s calendar and emails, she can also sense his moods and inflections.

What starts out as casual (virtual) companionship, however, soon becomes much more, and the lines between what’s possible between man and machine are brilliantly blurred.

While Her evokes other slightly-future, tech-driven love stories, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it never stops feeling completely original. Jonze (who also wrote the screenplay) has always been a bit left of center, but with Her, he has one-upped even himself and has created what may well go down as his best yet.

It’s powered not only by a unique and oddly realistic story but by expert performances from Phoenix and Johansson. When we first meet Theodore, he’s a mopey, plodding drone, but by the end he has sucked us into his world and Samantha has helped him suck out the marrow of life. (For the record, I’ll join the throngs calling for Johansson to get some Award-season love; her voice work here is exquisite.)

Her may be remembered by many for its “rise of the machines” moral, but, even more than that, it’s a sweet, uplifting, heartbreaking, honest, and ingenious work. And, second only to Before Midnight, may be the year’s smartest and most riveting love story.

5/5 stars