If you've ever sifted through your breakup photos, sorting images of glory days, painful days, and days you didn't understand at the time, you have an idea of "500 Days of Summer." This sweet, quirky, exceedingly satisfying relationship story rejiggers chronology like a random shuffle through chapters on a DVD. It's not a gimmick, but a smart, emotionally truthful perspective on a familiar tale. Don't we remember our lives editing as we go, skipping parts, hopping ahead, backtracking, pausing and adding commentaries?

A voice-of-God narrator advises us that "The boy, Tom Hanson of Margate, N.J., grew up believing that he'd never truly be happy until the day he met The One. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie 'The Graduate.' "

Now Tom's a 20-something writing sweet sentiments for a greeting card company. When new secretary Summer Finn joins him in the elevator and hears The Smiths seeping out of his iPod headphones, she compliments him on his taste. Tom hears her pleasantry as a thunderclap of fate. He falls in love. She falls in like.

Elation, depression, uncertainty and hope fight a cage match in Tom's psyche. In many ways they're a great pair, well-matched in looks and smarts. He feels rejected because Summer offers nothing more than friendship with benefits. Nothing personal, she just doesn't believe in love. Tom sees Summer as a symbol of everything he wants and needs, not a real person. When their romance fizzles, Tom begins a single-minded campaign to win Summer back.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's sweet amiability keeps him from seeming stalkerish, just as Zooey Deschanel's sincerity redeems a character who breaks the romcom template. He's optimistic and expressive, she's a restrained realist. As one of Tom's buddies puts it, "She's a dude." Although the film is told mostly from Tom's viewpoint, it endorses Summer's too, rejecting the sentimental formulas of romantic comedy. While it's a lot of fun, it challenges the viewer, withholding the comfort of secure moral frameworks and easy-to-read characters.

But wait. The film opens with Tom and Summer a year and a half into their relationship, happily sharing a park bench holding hands that show her wedding ring. Boy met girl, boy lost girl, boy got girl, right?

All is revealed in due time. The film only appears disjointed. In fact, it's remarkably well-constructed -- scripted, acted and shot with precision. As the film ping-pongs through their history, we learn the back story in tantalizing glimpses and clever clues. The structure puts a fresh, frequently comical, twist on elements as basic as a stroll into the office. We see Tom ecstatic after their first sleep-over, the world breaking into a sunny Bollywood dance number all around him. (Adding the UCLA Marching Band and an animated bluebird of happiness to Hall & Oates' soft rock relic "You Make My Dreams" gives the joke a sweet topspin.) He enters the lobby walking on clouds. Cut directly to Tom after his goosebumps have turned to swine flu, trudging out of the elevator like a sad-eyed emo poster boy.

An ingenious split-screen sequence tracks Tom's confused feelings at a party with Summer. His hopes for a romantic connection play out on one side, disappointing reality on the other. Disillusioned, he accuses his fellow greeting card writers of grinding out lies for the romance-industrial complex. Later (or maybe it's earlier) he believes in the fairy tale so passionately that he imagines himself in a grainy black-and-white world of French New Wave romanticism.

The film's postmodern path takes us through touching, tender, hilarious territory before winding up at the most beguiling part of any love story. The beginning.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186