Breathe new life into the rom-com genre, Raine Allen Miller’s Rye Lane is a delight. Premiering at Sundance, it pays a loving tribute to its ancestors while injecting a youthful British energy reminiscent of groundbreaking TV shows like Skins. This is a sunny, irreverent take on life and love, following two strangers through one eventful day, and more – though it’s most exciting when played in real time, Before the dawn-style.
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The opening scenes capture the cultural clashes and archetypes of contemporary South London – or Peckham, to be precise, home to the titular Rye Lane. The aerial camera flashes between booths in a unisex bar restroom, showing a young man being beaten up, a parent changing a baby’s diaper, teens taking selfies, girlfriends drinking and throwing up. When Dom (David Jonsson) enters the booth solo, he begins to do what many audiences don’t expect: to cry. His sobs are soon met by Yas (Vivian Oparah), who seems to be the only person using the toilet for its intended purpose.
The pair strike up a conversation and continue it about a vaguely mutual friend’s art exhibit. He turns out to have been dumped by his girlfriend and is on his way to meet her to talk things through. His half-hearted attempts to shake off Yas during the journey fail: this is a woman on a mission. There are certainly shades of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope in this candid character, but she also has agency, her own story, and isn’t just at the service of the male protagonist.
Nathan Byron and Tom Melia’s script also has fun at the expense of the hero and heroine’s romantic woes: one of its messages is not to take yourself too seriously. Landing most of the one-liners – from broad to observational, this is often laugh-out-loud funny, aided by a strong supporting cast playing everything from ex-partners to lesbian moms.
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There’s imaginative visual flair to the storytelling. When Yas and Dom tell each other stories about their recent past, it’s not just a flashback: the characters are portrayed, looking at their old selves, remembering everything from Back to the Future Part II to Being John Malkovich.
The main film references come from the romantic comedy genre itself. As the pair flit between parks, karaoke bars, house parties and food markets, eccentric strangers wander in and out of the frame. Some are well known – either cameos or tributes to well-known British romcoms from the diary of Bridget Jones until Love, actually. It’s a funny way to record the legacy Rye Lane comes from, but also to highlight how it is shaking up the norm. The characters central to this story may have previously been in the supporting cast of such films – or were absent altogether.
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Of course, there have been British romantic comedies with a mostly black cast before, like the one from 2018 Been so long and that of 2021 Boxing Day. But they are rare – and Rye Lane feels like a big, energetic leap forward for the genre as a whole.