By Noah Gittell
For those who have longed for the return of the romantic comedy, which sadly has been moribund for close to two decades, “Rye Lane” is just the thing. The story of two London youths who fall in love over one semi-eventful afternoon is rooted in the screwball comedies of the 1930s, where witty, fast-paced dialogue, double entendre, and movie star charm provided escape from the sorrows of the Great Depression. It’s a little too much to ask “Rye Lane” to save us from the strife of our era, but it provides a fair respite and a modicum of hope that a dormant genre has some life in it yet.
Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oparah) meet at an art show held by their pretentious friend. The show’s theme is the human mouth, a fitting motif for a genre built around dialogue and typically ending with a kiss. Dom and Yas are both newly single, although he was dumped, while she was a dumper. At this exact moment, they’re perfect for each other. Yas is bristling with bravado and likes a project. Dom needs coaching, since he’s on his way to a tense dinner with his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, Dom’s best friend. She tags along, and as they walk through the bustling, vibrant streets of Brixton, a bustling, multiethnic community, a spark ignites.
It’s a treat to watch a film built around two actors with whom you have little history. Both Jonsson and Oparah have done TV work but are largely unknown to movie audiences, allowing them to fully inhabit their slightly underwritten roles. We’re told that Dom is suffering from post-breakup depression, but outside of an early crying jag, there’s no hint of it. We get a sense that Yas’ bravado might be artificial, but her performance rarely conveys it. They’re having too much fun. The lack of depth is stifled by the actors’ abundant charms and the magic spell their chemistry casts on the viewer.
Credit goes to the actors, but also to first-time feature director Raine Allen-Miller, who creates a distinct, pleasing mood that pervades every aspect of the film. Throughout their afternoon, Yas and Dom encounter figures from their respective recent pasts, each more peculiar than the last. At various points, they find themselves at a backyard BBQ, a karaoke bar in a leggings room, and a strange restaurant where they keep bringing you food until you tell them not to.
The film makes full use of Brixton, a Jamaican community on the verge of gentrification, achieving universality through the details of a specific place and time. Throughout there’s a sense of eavesdropping on real people, a real neighborhood, and a real culture rarely represented on screen. The central romance might be overly familiar, but the richly textured background fills in the gaps.
Count the vivid roster of supporting characters as part of that background. Late in the story, Dom and Yas find themselves in confrontation with Yas’ ex and his new girl. The second couple are ostensibly the villain in this moment, but they’re drawn so fully — with such empathy and humor — that I kind of wanted the film to drift away and spend some time with them. It’s true of every character in the film. In a few swift strokes, the screenplay by Nathan Byron and Tom Melia crafts indelible portraits bursting with life. The hilarity of their exes and their new beaus stand out, but the film never for a moment sacrifices character for laughs, and every figure in the film seems worthy of their own spinoff.
“Rye Lane” is a hugely entertaining film supported by strong filmmaking and a sense of film history. It’s a movie that loves movies, both in the text and underneath it. Dom is a cinephile, and a key flashback of his takes place at a cinema, while Yas aspires to be a costume designer on film. There are little nods to contemporary film culture throughout, like a throwaway line about British filmmaker Steve McQueen or a background actor wearing the bunny costume from “Bridget Jones’s Diary”.
The film is deeply rooted in romantic cinema, from those early screwball comedies to “Before Sunset”, another film about two young characters walking around a city and falling in love, but I also felt the presence of Jean-Luc Godard in the film’s cheeky metatextuality and the primary colors that bathe the city background, evoking a sense of childlike playfulness and the bursting emotions of new romance.
With its charm, strong sense of place, and respect for the art of cinema, “Rye Lane” is the rare film seemingly designed simultaneously for casual viewers and hardcore cinephiles. It’s a new classic of an old genre that blazes a path for young lovers — of film and otherwise — to follow.