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Sundance 2023 Review: Rye Lane -“A wonderful, modern take on the romantic comedy.”

A still from Rye Lane by Raine Allen-Miller, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As our story starts, we are in a public washroom moving swiftly between stalls.  In one, a guy is getting beat up, in the next a lady changes her baby’s diaper.  A family is taking a selfie in another.  They’re all little snippets of life separated by one thin wall.  But in one of these toilets, Dom (David Jonsson) is crying.  Like, really crying.  The camera shoots him in such a way that the walls feel like they’re closing in on him, claustrophobic and cramped, just as the emotion of his somewhat recent break-up is crashing down on him.

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It just so happens that on the other side of the bathroom door from Dom is Yas (Vivian Oparah) who, while reminding him that this is a unisex bathroom, asks if he’s ok.  And while the two wander around their mutual friend’s questionable art show they start a conversation.  It’s a conversation that takes them through the day as they amble through South London.  They walk through a market in Peckham, through playgrounds to Brixton where a very memorable character serves them lunch.  They talk about their ex-partners.  And as they talk about their wounded hearts, and try to mend them, they wonder if they’re ready for something new.  

Rye Lane, Raine Allen-Miller’s impressive feature directorial debut, is a wonderful, modern take on the romantic comedy.  While the premise of the film isn’t new, apt to bring Before Sunrise to mind, Rye Lane still feels fresh.  Allen-Miller tells this story with a unique and confident voice.  The visual style she brings to the screen is distinctive, often using such a wide lens as to make the picture have a fisheye effect.  It at times can be a little distracting, especially at first, but she leans into it, and you have to applaud the commitment.  But, what it does do is make South London the third main character in this film, immersing you in the neighbourhood and culture.  Rye Lane isn’t just a romance about Yas and Dom, but also a love letter to this area of London, and Allen-Miller’s direction lets you take in every detail.   

Much of the success of Rye Lane also lands with the chemistry between Vivian Oparah and David Jonsson.  The extensive dialogue, written by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia, is sharply and deftly delivered by the stars.  The pair have a very easy way about one another, matching each other’s distinctive energy.  It’s essential to the feel of the film which is equal parts heart-warming and spirited and will have you smiling all the way through.  At the very least, you’ll never look at hummus the same way again.    

I knew about three minutes into this film that I would love it, and Rye Lane did not disappoint.  For a swift 82 minutes, I got to spend time in one of my favourite cities, in fact culminating in one of my favourite spots in London, with a couple that was delightful, charismatic and refreshing.  By the film’s end I felt as if I had seen, perhaps not a great romance, but the start of a beautiful friendship, and isn’t that the cornerstone of a lasting relationship?  

Much of Rye Lane concentrates on getting closure from our past.  “Everyone has a mess,” the film rightly states.  As our characters work on scouring their scars, the film feels less like it ends with happily ever after and more with a clean slate.  Rye Lane feels like a beginning, and perhaps a beginning for a fresh, reinvigorated type of ‘rom-com’ as well.  

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