If I asked one of the people closest to me to guess the genre of my favorite movie this year so far, "rom-com” would have zero responses. I admit, I have little affinity for the genre. And that's why it's such a nice surprise that Rye Lane has managed to fill me up.
The first thing that one will notice upon watching the 2023 Sundance hit is its sense of style. In its opening shot, filming from a bird’s eye view, it overlooks several cubicles of public toilets, as if to suggest that many disparate stories and lives pass through those small spaces. The camera moves and stops to focus on a young man crying in despair at photos of a couple. On the other side of the door is someone who awkwardly interacts with that man. And that strange interaction is the kick-off for something totally unexpected.
From its first few shots, it's clear that a lot of value has been given to the artistic plan. Another one of the film’s opening locations is an art gallery, and some of the initial conversations – some of which will accompany us throughout the film – foreshadow the central theme. But it’s not just the exposition of dialogue.
Aesthetically, the colors stand out, from the hues of the outfits of the main duo to those of the extras' clothes, the colors of the art gallery, and the vibrance of the neighborhood. This exercise of giving London, particularly South London, such a vivid look is somewhat similar to what Sex Education recently achieved on the small screen. But there is more to it than the color scheme.
Through an interesting use of the fisheye lens, character POV dialogue shots, and inspired editing choices – in the present or past, recounting real or imagined situations – Rye Lane has a very distinctive visual identity. It’s a geographical identity, in many ways, as South London serves as much more than just the setting of the story. Like Do The Right Thing, characters exist as an integral part of an entire ecosystem. It’s a lively and immersive strategy put into practice here over a short but intense 82 minutes.
Whether it's someone skateboarding, dancing, arguing, or a cowboy moonwalking, all action deliberately appears on the screen. It’s almost always happening in the background, but sometimes even mixing and passing in front of our main protagonists, giving it a very dynamic and organic feel. It’s a good reminder that the world keeps turning even though, for those two people, it seems to stop at that time and space.
In addition to the visual spectacle, I must also highlight the music and the soundtrack served up by Kwes. The music strengthens what we see on screen, making us feel good and inviting us to enter that magical world on that magical day. It's notably Black and notably British, but not in any clichéd way. It uses some slow, calm and even contemplative rhythms, with references to immigrant influences, such as the Jamaican community, that make the location special.
Discussing the technicality of Rye Lane would require many pages, which is fascinating considering that the vast majority of the film takes place in movement, with the two protagonists walking from one place to another. That aspect brings to mind other successful romantic films, such as the Before trilogy. However, if you're not the biggest fan of those films – personally, I appreciate them, but I'm not head-over-heels in love with them – don't lose interest, because there is an important distinction. While Linklater's trilogy is basically only about its central romance, Rye Lane relies much more on humor and various unexpected episodes.
For me, this worked particularly well, because I never felt trapped in their amour. I was compelled to follow them and watch their relationship grow naturally, all the while they made me laugh. The supporting actors (and a fun and unexpected cameo!) also stand out, all well-integrated into the spirit of a movie that relies heavily on its vibes, which makes perfect sense when you find out that the working title was "Vibes & Stuff."
Romantic movies cannot work without a captivating duo, and Yas and Dom, played by Vivian Oparah and David Jonsson, respectively, play very well off of each other. Yas seems more extroverted, more impulsive, with more urgency to live. Dom seems down, a bit sad even, and with little motivation to turn his situation around. The two have recently gone through divergent and difficult breakup experiences, but over time, these experiences reveal common traits. The on-screen chemistry between the two actors is impeccable, and it is one of the few cases where I really rooted for them as if they were not characters in a movie but real people who might continue to live that life even after the movie ends.
Rye Lane is one of those movies that I got totally lost in, mainly because of the optimistic feelings it conveyed and the excellent humor it employed. There is a fascinating scene between couples in a restaurant during the first act, another very funny scene at an ex's family's house, as well as an awkward yet fun karaoke scene. But there is so much to it, making it impossible to say which moment stayed with me the most. It is a movie in which all the elements are in harmony, resulting in a small miracle of a final product. Nathan Byron and Tom Melia's writing is sharp, smart, warm, and incredibly funny.
In the end, the greatest merit must be given to the person who controls all these elements, Raine Allen-Miller, making her directorial debut (!) in a feature film. Although the writing is not originally hers, it is visible that her touch is everywhere, not only in some changes to the script that made it more personal but also in the way she wanted this film to look. This is clearly her idea, her direction, and her conduction of this story. I am very curious to know what she will do next because, with that technical quality, I can see her trying different genres with success. For now, let me just enjoy and stay a little longer in this cozy, beautiful world.
Rye Lane is streaming on Hulu.