Raine Allen-Miller’s directorial debut “Rye Lane” made waves at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and arrives on Hulu this week. The movie follows Dom (David Jonsson), Yas (Vivian Oparah), and their fateful meeting in the gender-neutral restroom at an art exhibit. What begins as a thorny meet-cute turns into the longest unofficial first date ever, unfolding into a survey of the difficulty of moving on and the joy of quick connection. “Rye Lane” is a playful rom-com for the modern age.
We meet Dom as he sobs longingly in a toilet stall. He’s mourning his six-year relationship with Gia (Karene Peter), who left Dom for his best friend Eric (Benjamin Sarpong-Broni), an up-in-the-clouds kind of guy. This separation leaves Dom feeling depressed and abandoned, as he’s forced to move back in with his parents, where he plays video games and munches on his mother’s nonstop delivery of boiled eggs and bread.
Yas is similarly freshly on the outs with her ex-boyfriend, a pretentious killjoy artist. His self-absorption is evident in both his refusal to wave back at tourists and how he spitefully holds her precious copy of The Low End Theory (which he doesn’t even enjoy) hostage post-breakup.
Amidst strolls through London, breaking and entering, and a dicey cookout, “Rye Lane” is a lesson in chemistry, outlined with cheeky charm and heart-swelling empathy. Punchy, quick-witted dialogue and the ironies of youthful romance bring humor to the fore naturally. Laughs are not begged for, and the banter between Jonsonn and Oparah is authentic.
“Rye Lane” is a quirky, almost psychedelic day in the life of the couple and their community; a showcase of the birth of romance projected in full spectrum color. From its costuming to neon lighting to the stunning saturation of everyday markets and spaces, the film is marked by a characteristic vibrancy and ultra-wide angles. It’s kinetic filmmaking at its finest.
The soundtrack is yet another expertly executed detail that colors the world of Dom and Yas. With hip-hop throwbacks like Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” and tracks by some of South London’s own (Stormzy and Sampha, to name a couple), there’s no corner of the film untouched by love and culture.
However, “Rye Lane” always comes back to the leads. Jonsson pulls at the corners of your cheeks with his charm. He’s funny and heartwarming, and his pain as a jilted lover hits with the same impact as his flirtatious smirks. The young actor skillfully balances a full range of emotions on Dom’s journey with believable transitions. We meet him with swollen eyes and follow him into goofy laughs, pained hesitations, and hopeful leaps. Jonsson is the film’s emotional center, equal parts cheeky and poignant.
Meanwhile, Oparah carries much of the film’s wit, and her portrayal of foiled post-breakup blues stitches “Rye Lane” together. Yas is less sullen than angry about her heartbreak, and we feel that pain manifested in shaky breaks, exasperated laughs, and a stiffened spine. Her personal narrative is shown with less poignancy, and Oparah struggles a bit with full affect in Yas’ more emotional scenes, but she is nevertheless able to make us deeply invested in Yas’ story.
It’s also essential that Dom and Yas are prioritized as individuals in “Rye Lane.” They are treated with care for their histories and development rather than played as pawns to adorn an eventual romantic union. Dom and Yas exist outside of their relationship with each other, not only in conjunction with it, and this is what makes their journey worth watching.
With this debut, Allen-Miller puts herself on the map with her ability to take a genre overwhelmed by formula and contrived dynamics and remix it with fun, flair, and freedom. And “Rye Lane” is strikingly visual and often laugh-out-loud funny as it examines the personal politics of heartbreak and signals of hope. The film saves itself the melodrama and leans into the awkwardness of its characters, earning its empathy with reality instead of fantasy. This is a romance you may know, not one you only see in the movies.
On Hulu Friday, March 31st.