Before Sunrise stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine, two college-aged vacationers. They meet on a train traveling through Europe and strike up a conversation. When the train stops in Vienna, they decide to continue the conversation rather than part ways. They then begin a trek around the city, sharing experiences, learning about each other, and slowly falling in love. At sunrise, the two part ways (hence the title) to go back to their respective lives - hers in France, his in America.
What I love about this film and what makes it such a gem is that the story is focused solely on who these two people are and the connection they form with each other. The plot, such as it is, unravels slowly and naturally as the two characters walk around Vienna, stopping here and there as the fancy strikes them.
The naturalness of their time together as well as the conversations the two have stem from the film being shot on location in Vienna and largely improvised over the course of shooting. One of Richard Linklater's first films, Before Sunrise has shades of his masterwork, Boyhood, in how it tries to give an unadorned depiction of real life as it happens.
As for Jesse and Celine, they are flawed, likable characters, displaying all the fear, excitement, and arrogance that are part of being twenty-something. They like each other but are unsure of what it is they are experiencing and struggle between being pragmatic about their situation and their own romantic leanings. The real beauty of the film comes in the small moments where they reveal their feelings for each other with a stolen glance or shift in body language. Case in point: watch for the scene in a record store. It is a brilliant example of subtlety in acting and direction.
Linklater made two sequels with Hawke and Delpy that follow the same premise but pick up with the characters at different stages of their lives. They are exceptional films as well, but Before Sunrise is the heart of the series. And, while I appreciate the story Linklater tells with these characters over the course of the three films, I am partial to the ambiguous ending of Before Sunrise and the discussion of possibilities (and probabilities) it inspires.