Do you want to see a formula movie about a grieving widower with two kids who buys a rundown zoo and learns valuable life lessons? Probably not. Which means you’re in luck. Because Cameron Crowe doesn’t do things by the numbers. As a filmmaker, Crowe builds movies from the inside out. Character comes first — always. Just look at Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. In We Bought a Zoo, which Crowe directs from a screenplay he wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), he has found an actor in Matt Damon who works exactly like he does. Together they take Benjamin Mee’s autobiographical tale of buying that zoo (moved to SoCal from the English countryside) and add spine to the material’s inherent sweetness. Damon’s Benjamin isn’t a generic widower, he’s a journalist who still feels the pain of losing his wife to cancer. He’s there for his kids, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (born scene-stealer Maggie Elizabeth Jones), but he hasn’t bounced back according to the cheery demands of sitcom methodology. Damon is extraordinary. He’s heartfelt performance has a tough core of intelligence and wit. Even what appears to be a Hollywood setup romance with Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), who runs the zoo, goes off in unexpected directions. Don’t get me wrong. The movie is eager to please, with subplots galore. Kelly’s cousin Lily (Elle Fanning) falls for Dylan. Robin (Patrick Fugit who essentially played Crowe in Almost Famous), with a monkey perpetually on his shoulder, fears the zoo is about to go under. And Benjamin’s accountant brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), is convinced of it. What do you do with Spar, a tiger who’s dying, and Buster, a 650-pound grizzly bear who doesn’t like the idea of cages? It’s not how these plot strands play out that counts, it’s how Crowe keeps it real. Which means he takes his time, at first letting us feel as lost and ungrounded as the Mee family. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Amores Perros) never exaggerates the beauty of this ramshackle paradise. And Crowe, as ever, is unerring in his musical choices, Sigur Rós front man Jónsi does the score, with samplings of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Tom Petty to further set the mood. Don’t confuse the film’s modest goals with a lack of gravity. Damon’s father-son confrontation with Ford potently disproves that. As Benjamin says, “all it takes is 20 seconds of insane courage to change your life.” There’s a lot of fun waiting at We Bought a Zoo, but it’s the feelings that run through every scene scene that’ll make you glad you came.