A Winning Look at Modern Love
If all that Rye Lane, now available on Hulu, had going for it were the lead performances by Vivian Oparah and David Jonsson, that would still probably be enough to earn it a recommendation. Both Oparah and Jonsson bring an absurd level of charm and energy to the screen, and their chemistry with one another is simply off the goddamn charts. There’s no shortage of clever and colorful visual touches throughout the film, but Rye Lane is first and foremost a hangout movie and Oparah and Jonsson are an infinite amount of fun to watch hang out with one another.
There’s another, crappier, version of this movie where both characters succumb to being the basic archetypes that you can still spot as skeleton spines of the final versions in the movie. In that other, bad, movie, Dom (Jonsson) is an uptight sad-sack worrywart, and Yas (Oparah) is the manic pixie angel there to teach him how to loosen up and live a little. And in this other, annoying, version of Rye Lane, the pair would spend most of the runtime bickering and stressing the “opposites” half of “opposites attract”.
Rye Lane then is that oddest of creations: A romantic comedy where the mismatched duo not only have instantaneous chemistry, but actually recognize that chemistry between each other. That shouldn’t be that rare or noteworthy, but here we are. This is a movie about two people who like being around each other and take palpable pleasure in getting to know the other person. Because Rye Lane plays out in near real-time for long stretches, it genuinely feels like watching two people fall in love over the course of an afternoon.
At the movie’s start, neither Yas nor Dom is looking for a love connection. Both are reeling from recent breakups, even if they go about it in very different ways. Dom, an accountant, discovered his girlfriend of several years cheating on him with his best friend, and the revelation has left him shattered, a walking open wound who can barely get through a conversation without breaking down. For her part, Yas, an aspiring costume designer, is very, very quick to tell people that she was the dumper and not the dumpy, and she’s fine. No, really, she swears, she’s doing totally fine. Just…fine.
Yas and Dom meet by chance at an art show of some mutual friends (Yas recognizes Dom’s shoes as belonging to the man having a sobbing fit in the stall of a unisex bathroom) and soon get to chatting. Dom can’t not vent about his current personal agony, and Yas can’t help but dig for even more flavorful tea.
As they wander the streets of South London, neither finds themselves able to quit chatting with the other and fully walk away. It’s not long before Yas is accompanying Dom and posing as his new girlfriend during a lunch with his ex-girlfriend and ex-best friend, the first of a series of misadventures that makes an ordinary day into something extraordinary.
If I had to sum up Rye Lane in some lazy, succinct way, I’d probably say it was something like Before Sunrise shot like Scott Pilgrim. That doesn’t really do the actual feel of the movie any justice, but it gives you some sense of the balance the film is striking between slice-of-life chat-fest and exuberant, cartoon stylization. Director Raine Allen-Miller has worked as both an artist and a music video director, and she keeps her camera kinetic and her frames dynamic throughout. The camera dives into the interior of the characters’ minds, allowing Yas and Dom to walk through and comment on each other’s memories (for example, at one point an entire theater audience made of Doms stand up and applaud Yas on stage performing her recent breakup). Raine-Miller also clearly loves the Jonathan Demme/Barry Jenkins/Peep Show “staring directly into the camera” first person shot, getting a whole lot of mileage from getting up close and personal with her cast as they swoon, smile, or writhe in discomfort.
Everywhere Yas and Dom go during their aimless day, they encounter colorful tableaus stuffed with people busy with the act of living their own lives.
Blame it on Covid restrictions, blame it on pre-viz, blame it on over-reliance on green screens or The Volume, but American movies feel increasingly hermetic, as if the world of the movie only contains the half-dozen named characters and only extends as far as the edges of the camera lens. Every moment of Rye Lane is suffused with the understanding that every person Dom and Yas pass is the star of their own story, one in which our protagonists are the ones making a cameo.
At only 80 minutes in length, Rye Lane still feels overstretched at times, especially during a third act that goes through a few too many obligatory rom-com narrative motions. Dom and Yas are just so much fun to spend time with, it’s annoying when that time is interrupted by plot wrinkles and contrivances.
Even so, Allen-Miller’s propulsive filmmaking and the stellar work by the cast keep Rye Lane humming along even in overly familiar territory. Besides the two leads, special shout out must be paid to Benjamin Sarpong-Broni as Eric, Dom’s treacherous former friend who is nonetheless such a thoroughly affable himbo that not even Dom can stay mad at him. The lunch meeting with Eric and Gia (Karene Peter) is an early comedic peak for the movie, one it maybe never matches again.
I expect we’ll see a number of grander, more ambitious films than Rye Lane throughout 2023, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine there’ll be any as utterly and totally charming. It’s a movie that is palpably in love with its characters, its performers, its setting, with the very fact of its own existence, with the notion of love itself.
For the price of a Hulu login, and the time commitment of a decent walk, you can fall in love too.
Rye Lane is available on Hulu today.