It’s not a stretch to say that the romantic comedy has been struggling lately. The box office no longer seems to have a place for anything that isn’t a blockbuster. The latest contributions to the genre — think Ticket to Paradise, Marry Me, or Something From Tiffany’s — have all had better luck on streaming platforms. Fans of the dying genre have more than enough reason to be concerned, but the soon-to-be-iconic opening sequence of Rye Lane might be enough to put those concerns to bed … at least for a little while.
The film begins by panning over a succession of candy-colored bathroom stalls, and it’s a reminder that films can be fun and look great at the same time. Even when we finally land on Dom (David Jonsson) — sobbing alone in the dingiest, least colorful stall of them all — his shoes, two bright pink Chuck Taylors, tell us that not all hope is lost. They tell us that he is a romantic. He wants to keep believing in love, even after his longtime girlfriend cheated on him with his oldest friend. He’s trying to psych himself up for an awkward lunch date with the new couple, hence the ugly-crying in the loo.
Pink is a recurring motif throughout Rye Lane. It might just be a coincidence when Yas (Vivian Oparah) enters the same bathroom (it’s a gender-neutral situation) carrying a tote of the same neon hue. Maybe the pink represents the string of fate connecting these two characters. Maybe it’s just a cutesy aesthetic choice meant to invoke a warm, fuzzy feeling or two. Either way, when Yas catches Dom crying alone — and peeps his bright pink Chucks beneath the stall — they’re pretty much linked … maybe not for life, but certainly for the next several hours.
Yas is the type of girl that’s endearingly hard to shake. She tracks Dom down post-sob, and the pair quickly fall into a tête-à-tête that takes them on an impromptu stroll down the titular South London street. The vibes are tentative initially, but the longer they chat, the more opposites attract. Conversation is the lifeblood of the rom-com, and Rye Lane’s two writers — Nathan Byron, and Tom Melia — are natural at crafting it. How else are two attractive strangers — one brazen and happy-go-lucky, the other endearingly stuck in the mud — meant to fall in love in just a day? Their childhood aspirations, current occupations, embarrassing breakups, and most personal triumphs must all be laid out to expedite that process.
The particular beats of these conversations are all too familiar in the world of the romantic comedy. It’d be easy to assume that Rye Lane — which stands on the shoulders of dozens of cheeky, chatty British romances — has little to offer to an audience that’s already seen it all. The film invokes the work of Richard Curtis, Notting Hill, especially by focusing on one insular London community. Of course, with two Black leads replacing familiar (white) faces, Rye Lane would always feel like a step in a new direction. But first-time feature director Raine Allen Miller still goes the extra mile, taking what could have been a lackluster walk-and-talk and bringing it to life with color and energy. Miller — and cinematographer Olan Collardy, also making his feature debut — paint the world of Rye Lane as their inner child would: in broad strokes, with low stakes, and full of possibilities. Not a single frame is wasted; the wide-angle, unorthodox shot design fills the screen with one eccentric image after the next. It’s a world where it’s safe to fall in love again, and the film’s two stars waste no time making it their playground.
David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah are absolute revelations in Rye Lane. Together, their chemistry is never in question, and it may have something to do with their allure as individuals. There’s been no shortage of Black nerdy guys on-screen these days, but as Dom, Jonsson manages to subvert the archetype in his own way. Miraculously, Dom is so much more than just a shy, bumbling wallflower. Jonsson knows when to lean into that role when the story calls for it — and in this sort of “opposites attract” situation, it does quite a bit. But he makes sure to sneak in a few moments of quiet self-assurance where possible. He does not need to be convinced of his own sensuality. If anything, it’s Dom that eventually convinces us. His charisma is the kind that takes its sweet time revealing itself, and it’s the perfect complement to the assertive charm in his co-star.
Not unlike Dom, Oparah’s Yas could have quickly fallen into another well-worn archetype: that of the manic pixie dream girl. There are definitely echoes of the trope in her upbeat, unsinkable energy. But the script offers many opportunities for Yas to demonstrate some depth and reclaim her autonomy after her draining breakup. Oparah seizes those opportunities without missing a beat. It’s a giddy pleasure to watch her and Jonsson bounce off one another, banter and bluster and eventually give themselves over to the possibility of love.
The only problem with their story (if there had to be one) lies in their dreaded second-act break-up. We all know it’s coming, but Rye Lane might not do quite enough to justify it. Maybe it’s just that Jonsson and Oparah are too damn charming for their own good; there never seems to be anything really standing in the way of their getting together. Sure, they’re polar opposites, and both are rebounding in a major way — but their rapport is so delightful and breezy you never doubt for a moment that they’ll make it work somehow.
On that premise alone, Rye Lane feels more like a fantasy than any of the new-age romantic comedies that precede it. It’s Richard Linklater‘s Before Sunrise told through the lens of an Edgar Wright film: all whimsy, no cynicism. Maybe it’s a bit light on stakes, but that might be what the genre needs right now. A little fantasy never hurt anybody — and with the rom-com in such dire straits, it certainly won’t hurt to indulge in the good whenever possible.
Rye Lane premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2023. The film will release internationally on March 23, 2023.