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It may sound crazy to call a romantic comedy that features a crowd of strangers busting out in spontaneous song-and-dance “realistic.” But (500) Days of Summer, the directorial debut of music-video vet Marc Webb, and the screenwriting debut of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, defies expectations in a number of ways. For one, Summer isn’t a season but a woman. And right from the start we’re told that she doesn’t end up with the guy.

“This is a story of boy meets girl…[but] this is not a love story,” an omniscient but reticent narrator says as the film opens. We’re then given nonlinear glimpses of the 500 days since a greeting-card writer named Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a quirky beauty hired as an administrative assistant in his office. They flirt, they date, they fight, they break up. And each day of their relationship is assigned a number, for some reason always noted in parentheses, and presented with the randomness of bingo balls, resulting in a film that mixes up the couple’s stages of intimacy, their good days and bad.

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Tom is the romantic and Summer the free spirit, telling him from the start that she’s not interested in exclusivity and doesn’t even really believe in love. Still, trips to Ikea, drunken karaoke, and pillow talk follow, leading Tom to believe that he’s the guy who’ll change Summer’s mind. But then the mixed messages and increasing chilliness begin, until finally Summer breaks it off.

None of these facts are spoilers; the film’s appeal is witnessing the highs, lows, and red flags of a romance with the 20/20 hindsight that eludes the lovers themselves as one day melts into another. The Ikea trips, a practical requisite for every young couple, are especially illuminating: An early one shows them joking around and playing house; in a later visit, those same jokes fall flat. Another clever gimmick, upon Tom’s arrival at a party Summer throws post-breakup, is a split screen, the halves labeled “expectations” and “reality.” Let’s just say that it’s uncomfortable to watch.

(500) Days employs perhaps a few too many of these stylizations, which also include animation and Tom watching himself in an angst-ridden black-and-white film, and Deschanel often feels like she’s playing a dialed-down version of her Yes Man character. But its strengths negate the preciousness. While Gordon-Levitt doesn’t offer anything particularly unique in his lovelorn character, it’s easy to see why Tom would fall for Summer, with Webb ensuring that the camera catches every facet of Deschanel’s loveliness. More important, though, is the script’s emotional realism—the messiness and uncertainty of the relationship, the inevitability of seeing only the good stuff when trying to get over someone. And when Tom and Summer finally have a frank talk about why she left him, her one-line reason is devastating in its simplicity and truth. Still, for all its heartbreak, the film ends with a note of hope. Like Tom, you may be too ravaged to fully feel the potential joy of a fresh start—but you’ll certainly believe in it.