The romantic comedy is perfectly suited for films on a lower budget. As long as you have two or more likable leads with an undeniable chemistry, anything else (elaborate production design, music, etc.) is essentially gilding the lily, so it is truly a delight that Rye Lane, which is Raine Allen-Miller’s feature directorial debut, has much to admire besides the leading performances of David Jonsson as Dom and Vivian Oparah as Yas.
Set in the titular neighborhood in Peckham and Brixton, areas of South London, Rye Lane follows Dom and Yas as they spend a day together after meeting memorably at a friend’s art show. Dom is crying in the stalls while Yas comforts him just right outside without knowing who he is. We learn quickly that Dom is planning to talk to his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend (also Dom’s childhood friend) to “clear the air.” Yas also has her own baggage, having just recently ended a long relationship with her pretentious artist boyfriend. But at the beginning of the movie, it seems that Yas is the one who has it better together.
Rye Lane is very aware of the titular neighborhood, and it becomes more than just a mere backdrop for the film. Nearly every frame pops with color, which stems naturally from what these places actually look like. A large percentage of the population of places like Brixton and Peckham is culturally diverse, and it shows in the decor, both indoors and outdoors, and, of course, the people who live there. We get to see an art gallery with an exhibition on mouths, a wild karaoke bar, and many other places that speak to the life and diversity of the neighborhood.
But Rye Lane also manages to avoid the tourist mentality of shallowly engaging with only the exteriors of the community with a memorable detour to the family of her ex-boyfriend who are having a barbecue. Their interactions with the aunties and uncles there will be incredibly familiar to almost anyone with an immigrant background. It also grounds both characters in a specific culture and gives us valuable insight into their personalities. We see that Dom is more Anglicized in a funny and awkward scene where his questionable taste in music is revealed. We see that Yas is still friendly with her ex’s family, showing how rare it is that any relationship exists solely within a bubble, when it seems that most romantic comedies try to make their stories so self-contained and rarely come at their stories from a culturally specific angle like Rye Lane does.
Rye Lane is not merely a travelogue of a culture, but a story of two sympathetic characters learning about each other in delightful ways. Jonsson and Oparah have a quick and easy chemistry that seems natural. The dialogue is not on the screwball level of quick patter, but Jonsson’s sensitive and somewhat anxious performance balances well with Oparah’s cheeky one, which nevertheless hides great insecurity. The supporting cast is chock-full of colorful characters with perhaps Benjamin Sarpong-Broni as Eric, the friend whom Dom’s girlfriend cheated with, as a standout. His hilariously himbo line deliveries undercut the tension and awkwardness of the humiliating dinner Dom has subjected himself to so that Gia, his girlfriend, can essentially have his blessing to continue her relationship with Eric guilt-free.
Rye Lane does hit the tropes of the romantic comedy genre quite firmly: the meet-cute, the misunderstanding that separates the characters for a while, the romantic reunion, etc. The film’s weakness may be just how insistently it leans into those tropes especially towards the very end. In terms of story structure, Rye Lane will be very familiar to even the most casual genre observers. But the production design, the performances and the writing, all aspects of filmmaking work hard to make Rye Lane a fresh, exciting take on a genre that struggles to find an audience in a landscape of franchises and “content” based on preexisting intellectual property.
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