The ten-year anniversary of the 2006 British movie STARTER FOR 10 passed quietly, which is a shame because more movies today could learn from its portrayal of a life-plus-romance. It’s romantic, and it’s funny, and it’s better than your taffy-candy run-of-the-mill “rom-com” (movies about a person who finally ends up with “the one” after facing cliche obstacles like disapproving parents or terrible timing). No—STARTER FOR 10 is about learning from your mistakes, building good relationships, and finding yourself, not finding love.

Brian Jackson, played by James McAvoy, has wanted to be smart ever since he was little. He steps foot on Bristol University’s campus excited to gain all the knowledge he can, and he joins the University Challenge team for the chance to compete on the television quiz show he grew up watching with his late father. Almost immediately he starts crushing on Alice Eve, who also joins the team, and befriends Rebecca Hall, a passionate activist. But, like all coming-of-age movies, Brian makes mistakes in his relationships: he misreads Alice’s gestures, fights with his old friend Spencer, hurts Rebecca, and doesn’t know how to react to his mom’s new boyfriend, Des.

STARTER FOR 10 doesn’t sidestep the clichés and tropes looped in with the genre. Sometimes, you just can’t get around them—should the main character be an ambitious woman who claims she’s not looking for love or a bored office worker who is? Should she be a beautiful girl who wants a man who appreciates her kindness, or a kind girl who wants a man who appreciates her beauty? Instead, the movie takes a few of tropes, shakes them around a bit, and deploys them in new ways, showing how life is a lot more complicated than boy-meets-girl.

READ: Speaking of a complicated life…Check out this article on THE BEAUTY INSIDE, a romantic movie about a man who wakes up with a different appearance every day.

The “Wrong Girl” Isn’t So Bad

The “other girl” or guy always shows up in romcoms as a point of comparison. In that tradition, STARTER FOR 10 has Alice—blonde, lovely, and romantically experienced—to represent the total opposite of Rebecca, who is brunette, sarcastic, and not-so-experienced. But Brian’s choice isn’t so black-and-white in this movie. We watch him become friends with Alice, who always has a hug and a smile for Brian, and she is clearly a good person underneath her good looks. When Brian takes her dinner (it’s still a while before Alice learns he has feelings for her), the conversation leads to Brian confiding in her about his father’s death, and she says his dad would be so proud of him. They hug, and Alice tells him, “You are such a lovely man.”

Alice cares about him and values their friendship, so it’s not hard to imagine the story going a different direction had Alice seen him as more than a friend. But unlike some movies, she doesn’t suddenly come to the revelation that Brian is perfect for her (like in JUST FRIENDS and 13 GOING ON 30).

He accepts this because unlike Katniss, Bella, and Bridget Jones, Brian doesn’t have his pick of girls who both want to be his girlfriend badly. STARTER FOR 10 acknowledges that it’s not solely his decision to make and that choosing one person does not mean you lose the other. When Alice rejects him, he moves on, but he still stays friends with her. Their romantic relationship wasn’t prevented or stopped because Alice was a jerk (THE DUFF), a terrible match for him (LEGALLY BLONDE), already in a relationship (27 DRESSES), or moving far away (PAPER TOWNS)—there was no reason they didn’t get together other than she just didn’t like him in that way. That’s one of the most common reasons in real life, but it’s often not explored in romcoms because it’s disappointing and doesn’t allow the audience to feel justified in thinking “he would’ve been better off without her, anyway.” But sometimes life just happens this way, and you have to keep moving.

READ: Have you heard of FRONT COVER, an indie rom-com about two Asian-Americans? Check out this review.

The “Right Girl” Isn’t So Certain

Brian seems to perform more of the conventional romantic moves with Alice: dinner, meeting the parents, a kiss (which Alice brushes off). With Rebecca, there is no teary confession of love, no deep conversations beyond their witty banter—just a New Year’s Eve hookup-gone-wrong (Brian accidentally calls her Alice, and she leaves in anger) and an end scene of them kissing after reconciling.

The film hints at the significance of their joking conversations, though, through what Brian’s mom says about her new boyfriend after she senses her son doesn’t like him: “I’m sorry you don’t like Des, but I do. And he likes me. And he makes me laugh.” Although Brian has an amiable relationship with Alice, their senses of humor don’t always mesh. When they walk on the campus together at the beginning of their friendship, Brian is talking about his obsession with learning things and mentions that a lot of it is useless.

Alice: “You think there’s such thing as useless knowledge?”

Brian: “Well, sometimes. I wish I hadn’t learned how to crochet.”

A: “You are joking, aren’t you?”

When he confirms, she laughs and pushes him a bit too hard. Smiling, he grabs some leaves and tosses them at her side. Alice makes a face and says, “Better not. There might be dog poo in there.”

The first conversation he has with Rebecca, at a party on his first day at university, starts when Brian escapes his conversation with a guy who is anti-toilet-paper by walking up to her and saying, “Do you mind if I pretend to know you?” They chat, and Brian finds out she’s Jewish.

Brian: “Loads of my heroes are Jewish. Woody Allen, Marx, Einstein, Dustin Hoffman—”

Rebecca: “Jesus.”

B: “Jesus, Freud, Kubrick.”

R: “Yeah. God, there certainly have been some amazing Jews. My people thank you.”

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The film (and presumably the book that it’s based on) does give other obvious clues that Brian should be with Rebecca, though I get the feeling that they’re there to give more satisfaction to the audience about who he ultimately ends up with. After he hurts Rebecca’s feelings by calling her Alice and ruins the hookup, Brian loses interest in his classes. One of his teachers, who admitted him to Bristol earlier after being impressed with his intellectual vitality, pulls him aside and asks if he’s been having love problems. Days later and hours before Brian’s televised appearance on University Challenge, he hits the head of the insufferable team captain, Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch), with his nose, which knocks Brian out. The only person at his side when he wakes up is, unsurprisingly, Rebecca. She wipes a bit of blood off his face, makes him laugh, and gives him words of encouragement before he prepares to go on stage.

In the end scene, Brian asks her for forgiveness for all the mistakes he’s made. Rebecca says, “You already know the answer.” The camera pans out as they kiss.

There is a faint uncertainty in STARTER FOR 10. Brian has found mutual acceptance and understanding with Rebecca, but they won’t necessarily be together forever or even pursue a real romantic relationship. They’re just college students who have shared a kiss, after all. But we know they share an emotional and mental connection, which existed before any physical attraction. STARTER FOR 10 feels satisfying in that the ending resulted from a natural progression of three peoples’ feelings, closing with a moment that makes everyone happy. While Brian did get an expected cinematic version of his “happily ever after,” it comes from him being forgiven by Rebecca, not them getting together (and the fact that they’re in college and not an age where taxes, kids, and jobs matter).

There’s more to life than romance

While Brian is figuring out his feelings for Rebecca and Alice, he is hard at work preparing with his University Challenge team. The beginning of the movie shows him as a child sitting in front of the TV, attempting to answer the questions on the University Challenge show with his father encouraging him on. It’s a memory that floats back into your mind later in the movie when Brian snatches the sheet announcing tryouts off the bulletin board, when Brian tells Alice about his dad’s death, when Brian pulls out an old photo of his dad wearing the same coat he had, and when his mother says she wishes his dad was able to watch him achieve his dream of competing on television.

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This all leads to the disheartening climax during the quiz show. Before the taping, Brian had snuck a look at one of the questions. Late in the competition, the announcer prepared to ask the exact question and disclosed the topic: astronomy. Excited, Brian buzzed in and spouted the correct answer before the question was even asked, causing a stunned silence. He returned home, feeling shame for costing the team a much-anticipated victory and guilt for letting down his father.

After a period of moping in his childhood home, he realizes he needs to pick himself up and move on. That’s when packs his bags, shakes Des’s hand, and runs to ask Rebecca for forgiveness as soon as he arrives on campus.

What creates a good relationship, platonic or romantic, isn’t having the right timing or being able to accurately read body language signals, but being the best person you can be and making up for it when you mess up. STARTER FOR 10 presents the most important part of a relationship that many other romcoms ignore: improving yourself. In the ending narration, Brian shares his conceit that he will mess up sometimes. But, just as he learns from trivial facts and crocheting, he will learn from mistakes. That’s how he can truly become smart.

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