A lonely young novelist creates a fictional girlfriend so vivid that she actually comes to life in "Ruby Sparks," but if you think you know this story you may be surprised. "Ruby Sparks" is a smart, funny, charming romance about meeting the perfect girl, but it also sneaks up on you with deep questions, discomfiting insights and more emotional punch than you may expect.

The directors are Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, of "Little Miss Sunshine," but the credit goes to Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of the filmmaker Elia Kazan), who wrote the script and plays the title role. Not for Kazan the male fantasies of "Weird Science," in which two panting teenage boys create a swimsuit model, or even "Splash," with Tom Hanks teaching his pet mermaid everything she knows. That's great for the guys, but Kazan has a question: How does the dream girl feel?

Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a Salingeresque prodigy (or maybe Eggers-esque: His debut novel is called "Heartbroken Old Times") whose creativity has evaporated. As a writing exercise he creates Ruby Sparks, 26, raised in Dayton, Ohio. He gives her a rebellious adolescence, a flair for vintage dresses, a slight daddy complex and a welcome kink or two. "Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing aren't real," says his brother, Harry (Chris Messina). How wrong he is.

Though "Ruby Sparks" would have worked fine as a cute love story, and it gives the usually pinched Dano a chance to loosen up (his freak-out at Ruby's appearance is one of the film's best scenes). But Kazan's script, and her heartfelt performance, give it some extra heft. As Ruby begins to slip from Calvin's control, we feel for both of them and the story takes some unexpectedly troubling turns. It's a fresh angle on a familiar story, and a small-scale tour-de-force for Kazan.

PLOT A struggling writer creates a fictional girl who suddenly comes alive. RATING R (language)

CAST Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Chris Messina.

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LENGTH 1:44.

PLAYING AT Area theaters.

BOTTOM LINE A small-scale tour-de-force from writer-star Kazan, charming and funny but also moving and insightful.