Film Review – Rye Lane
Raine Allen Miller’s feature length directorial debut, Rye Lane (2023) is an exuberant romantic comedy. Along with writers Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia, Miller creates a portrait of two twenty-somethings that feels like a throwback and a modern update at the same time. There are odes to the past, with influences ranging from Before Sunrise (1995), the work of Spike Lee, and the music of A Tribe Called Quest. And yet, in terms of style and mood, this has an identity all to itself. It’s a 21st century love story, brimming with a youthful energy that is nothing short of enthralling. Is the structure something we’ve seen before? Of course it is, but that doesn’t dampen the fun. Miller has taken a well-worn genre and given it new life.
The title represents a section of Southern London bustling with shops, bars, markets, and restaurants. A quick internet search tells me Rye Lane is not only one of the most diverse areas in London, but of the entire U.K. Miller utilizes this backdrop as an active participant in the narrative. The cinematography (Olan Collardy) takes the opportunity to highlight the surroundings – colorful doorways, shop owners selling rugs and other trinkets, street performers, graffiti art, etc. All these elements coalesce to create a distinctive and vibrant texture. The way our protagonists weave in and out of these locations creates an energetic atmosphere, as though anything can happen spontaneously. Half the joy is in seeing what random place we’ll visit next.
At the center is Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oparah). He is an accountant; she is a fashion designer. Both have gone through a recent breakup. Their Meet Cute happens in a bathroom of an art gallery, where Yas overhears Dom crying in a stall. Through the course of a day, we see the two make their way around Rye Lane, eating and going to karaoke bars, getting into hijinks, and learning more of one another. The writing/direction, as well as Jonsson and Oparah’s performances, make the budding connection between Dom and Yas natural and organic. On the surface, the relationship can be mistaken for the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl Teaching an Introverted Guy How to Open Up” trope, but luckily the characters are more than just types. Dom and Yas feel like real people, with real personalities, ideas, and concerns. They give us a look at what it means to be a young black person growing up in this part of the world – along with all the intricacies and details that makes them singular individuals.
David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah have great chemistry. This isn’t a case where one person simply gets the other out of their shell. Their dynamic is a partnership where one compliments the other. This is best exemplified when Dom and Yas meet with Dom’s ex (Karene Peter) and her current boyfriend (Benjamin Sarpong-Broni). At first, the scene plays out as Yas supporting Dom, who is clearly uncomfortable being there. But her energy rubs off on him, giving him the confidence to match her lead. Soon enough, he is not just a follower but a co-driver in the conversation, riffing along with Yas like a dance partner. The back and forth plays like improv that slowly builds in momentum. Credit should also be given to Peter and Sarpong-Broni, whose confused and bewildered reactions make the sequence all the funnier.
Miller supplements the performances with creative cinematic flourishes. The opening features a bravado overhead shot that floats over several bathroom stalls, stopping on an emotional Dom hiding away from the rest of the crowd. Miller takes a page out of Spike Lee’s playbook, incorporating closeups where characters look directly at the camera. These choices help amplify the awkwardness of Dom and Yas’ first meeting. When the two make their way on the street, the camera lens switches to a dramatic fisheye style – twisting the visuals with rounded edges. By placing characters in the middle of the frame during these stretches, they are brought to centerstage. Victoria Boydell’s editing cuts back and forth between events in real time, flashbacks, and dream sequences. There’s a heightened level of reality that borders on fantasy. But that’s usually how it goes right? Falling in love comes with a certain perception of the world – colors are brighter, the air feels electric, etc. The filmmaking not only has us see Dom and Yas grow close, but it allows us to feel their emotions as well.
The youthful spirit that pervades Ryne Lane also comes with a crass sense of humor. Miller’s narrative is not only sweet and lovable but includes some abrasive gags as well. There’s a running joke about women’s underwear, with characters either rummaging through them or wearing them in ridiculous fashion. There’s also an odd obsession with urine. One scene has a character monologue about urine storage, and later we see characters using a urinal for the purpose of delivering a joke. Dom and Yas visit museums featuring extreme close-up photographs of open mouths or bare bums. The camera just so happens to linger on the hairy rear ends a beat or two longer for us to really take in the imagery. Listen, I’m not against underwear, pee, or hairy butts, but when juxtaposed with Dom and Yas’ romance, these bits are little jarring. Or maybe I’m becoming a prude in my old age.
Rye Lane is a confident and skillful debut for Raine Allen Miller. Where many forgettable rom coms understand the basics of the genre and refuse to paint beyond those lines, Miller takes the material and reinvents it into something fresh and exciting. The best romantic comedies are about those we enjoy hanging out with. Here, we’re introduced to people who are funny, smart, and witty. We fall for them just as much as they fall for each other.