Romantic comedy is harder than it may appear, which is why people often talk about the genre as though it’s currently in hospice care and why a slate of recent star-driven rom-coms have all been awkward action hybrids. Watch a trailer for The Lost City, Shotgun Wedding, or the upcoming Ghosted and flirty exchanges apologetically give way to a kidnapping and/or shoot-out, as if rushing to reassure audiences that they won’t have to make do with the mere spectacle of two attractive actors falling in love. Writing witty banter, casting leads with chemistry and coming up with reasons to throw them together and then keep them apart for the length of a movie — it can feel, at times, like a lost art, hence the overcompensation by way of bursts of automatic-weapon fire. But then you watch Rye Lane, a winsome rom-com set mainly over the course of a spring day in London, which makes all of this look effortless. Why can’t people do this more often? And why is this delightful flick, which premiered at Sundance in January, being sent straight to Hulu like an afterthought?
Rye Lane was directed by Raine Allen-Miller in her feature debut — and was written by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia — and is essentially the opposite of a movie that sends a gang of armed pirates crashing into the middle of a meet-cute. Its main characters are Yas (Vivian Oparah) and Dom (David Jonsson), two dorky-hip 20-somethings who meet at the art opening of a mutual friend, Nathan (Simon Manyonda), whose work revolves around giant close-ups of body parts — in this case, mouths. They actually meet in the bathroom, where Dom is sobbing in a stall over the demise of his six-year relationship. Yas overhears his crying jag and strikes up a conversation outside. It turns out they’re headed in the same direction, cutting through Rye Lane Market, and as they stroll, we learn that Yas is also fresh off a breakup, though she insists that she’s fine and that she was the dumper rather than the dumpee. Her insouciance proves aspirational for Dom, who has moved back into his childhood bedroom and who has been wallowing in heartbreak by way of his ex’s social-media feeds.
Rye Lane is more than just an extended walk-and-talk. Dom has masochistic plans to clear the air with his ex, Gia (Karene Peter), and Eric (Benjamin Sarpong-Broni), the guy Gia left him for (and his best friend), and Yas proposes her own errand, one that takes the pair from a garden party filled with skeptical elders to her own ex’s place. But the walking and talking, filled with digressions and jokes and pauses at a playground and in a pub, is enough in itself. Dom, a sleepy-eyed accountant with kelly-green headphones around his neck, comes across as straitlaced and sad, while Yas, with her fuzzy pink bag slung over her shoulder and her tendency to tease, enjoys playing the role of his manic pixie dream girl for the day. And yet as they learn more about each other, it becomes clear that Dom is more game than he initially appeared and Yas more vulnerable and uncertain than she pretends. They just really like each other, and it comes through in the beats between their bouts of dialogue, when they can’t help but smile when looking in the other’s eyes.
Allen-Miller breaks things up with stylized bursts of flashbacks and anecdotes: A theater full of Doms looks on as Yas tells the story of how she ended things with her ex, and a concert-hall-size karaoke venue goes wild during an improvised how-we-met story. But she also shoots the regular action with a wide-angle lens, all the better to catch all the vendors, loungers, and passersby along the way. Rye Lane was filmed in the spring of 2021 and has the unmistakable energy of the first nice day of the year, when everyone in a city is out and about, whether it’s to run errands, to hang out in the park, or to meander the way Dom and Yas are. The movie’s London is vibrant, random, and immigrant-driven, and it bustles in the background of every shot, whether it’s children shooting a TikTok dance, a shirtless man leaning out a terraced-house window, or a Tai Chi class full of senior citizens in the park. Rye Lane asks you to fall in love with Dom and Yas, but failing that, it will have you hopelessly smitten with its South London setting and with that feeling of having the day open and nothing to do but wander and see what may happen. With the city spread before you, you never know who you might meet.
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