There’s been a surprising amount of hullabaloo around Rye Lane in my circle. Perhaps I oughtn’t be surprised; there’s been whisperings about the need for good old-fashioned romantic comedies of late. With multiplexes full of two-and-a-half to three-hour-long multi-million-dollar blockbusters with hardly a pixel of reality to be seen anywhere these last few years, there’s a definite market for smaller, more mid-budget genre vehicles powered by character, story, and charm. We’ve definitely seen studios wake up to this market of late, with some of the biggest success stories of the last year being the unlikeliest of genre fare taking the world by storm. Look no further than our new Best Picture winner.
If you’re still feeling especially starved of quality, small scale, light-footed film-making, then the 2023 Sundance Hit Rye Lane may be just what you’ve been waiting for. It certainly seems to have been for many as it’s quickly become one of the most fondly embraced movies of the new year, with many rushing to champion this creative and exuberant new comedy as the underdog it is. However, I’m loathe to really join in with this because, although there’s no shortage of endearing spirit in Rye Lane, it’s far from the most rewarding or memorable such experience on offer (I will continue to stan Last Christmas as a top-tier rom-com and Christmas movie). Rom-coms are as trope-reliant as any other genre and the ones on offer from director Raine-Allen Miller (making her feature directing debut) are a cozy mismatch between Richard’s Curtis and Linklater, with her young lovers making a tour of the tweely re-imagined titular London borough over the course of one protracted and disordered date day.
Yas (Vivian Oparah) comes upon the meek, heartbroken Dom (David Jonsson) in the bathroom at an exhibition given by a mutual friend. Dom is crying profusely over his recent breakup, and having just gone through something similar, the independent and funny Yas makes awkward efforts to provide salve as they wend their way home in the same direction. Ensuing are a vengeful lunch date with Dom’s ex and her new beau, a raid on Yas’s ex’s place to reclaim a lost vinyl, an impromptu karaoke session and many irreverent flashbacks through their respective love lives. The whole is presented in a larger-than-life vision of South London life, and a frothy character study of two people who’ve met at a crossroads and help each other find their way.
The romantic comedy is a format that might have a better track record on TV than on film. It’s certainly true that Rye Lane often has the look and feel of a feature length pilot for a BBC sitcom (there’s a lot of Chewing Gum in its setting and humor). The makers were clearly concerned with the setting, loading the film with bizarre cameos from local celebrities, and shooting almost the entire film through an extreme wide-angle lens, just in order to get every last bit of the background in focus. The film is called “Rye Lane” after all so we’d better see plenty of it. Though the location isn’t terribly important and familiarity isn’t a necessity. Knowing Peckham would certainly add a personal zest to proceedings as you go landmark spotting, but it’s not an integral part of the film’s story or even character. It could’ve been set in any vaguely multicultural, bohemian district of any large Western city. The film was even originally planned to be shot in Brixton, but Rye Lane just proved a more achievable location for filming.
The real main characters of Rye Lane are indeed, its actual main characters Yas and Dom. Jonsson’s occasionally rather awkward portrayal doesn’t exactly fill the screen or score the biggest laughs, the more colorful supporting cast regularly outshine him, as does Oparah whose performance of Yas’s extroverted energy fairly steals the show. She handles the emotional changes of her character with more conviction and although calling her turn ‘potentially star-making’ might be a push, she does make a strong impact and shows she can carry a feature pretty near unaided.
The obvious point of comparison would be something like Before Sunrise, following two strangers as during a day’s ambling, they become friends, grow in intimacy and potentially become lovers. Rye Lane doesn’t strive for Linklater’s realism though, with it’s London more like one from the Paddington movies, flaunting it’s vibrancy and multiculturalism on every corner, every passer-by projecting infinite quirky side character energy. There are moments when this is offset by moments of genuine wit and the film particularly delights in assaulting the vapid ‘creatives’ who make up Yas and Dom’s shared circle. The laughs the film manages to elicit do excuse its general frivolity.
As rom-coms go, Rye Lane is neither especially funny or romantic, but it passes the bar for both due in large part to the spirited turns of its relatable, attractive leads, qualities upon which any rom-com will sink or swim. It’s aesthetic might not befit the big screen and it’s not really investing or professional enough to make A-feature status. I didn’t find the pervasive wide-angles as distracting as most, but they’re pretty noticeable with the image bowing out unattractively during pans and the edges of the screen often very blurry. But for home viewing, snuggling on the sofa with a bottle of rosé and your boo, Rye Lane would find itself very much at home.