As the rom-com still gasps for air in the blockbuster landscape, the Sundance Film Festival has become a reliable source for small, distinctive entries into the genre, from “Obvious Child” to “Palm Springs.” This year, the festival’s lineup yields the delightful “Rye Lane,” which takes a simple premise and infuses it with warm performances and a distinct sense of place.
In Raine Allen-Miller’s debut feature, the two will-be lovebirds first encounter each other in a loo at an art show — he’s sobbing — and embark on a day of skirting responsibility and negotiating their own heartbreak. At just 82 minutes, Allen-Miller’s film is short, but packed to the brim with her affection for her characters and the place in world they occupy, the South London neighborhood of Peckham.
Watching the film, audiences will long for Allen-Miller’s heroes to get together, but will also likely also crave the burritos they eat and itch to grab some pints and crisps with them. It’s both a vibrant introduction to a corner of the city that, at least this American, knew little about, and a calling card for an emerging director who knows that the story of two people falling for each other should be as visually engaging as anything else in theaters.
Dom (David Jonsson of “Industry”) is reeling from a break-up with his longtime girlfriend when Yas (Vivian Oparah) hears his whimpers. The script, from Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia, frames these two as a traditional odd couple: Whereas Dom shrinks from confrontation, Yas barrels headfirst into it. He’s an accountant. She’s a costume designer. Can I make it any more obvious?
A chat at their goofy mutual friend’s gallery exhibition spills out onto the street, where Dom explains he’s heading to meet up with his ex, who also happens to have cheated on him with his best friend since childhood. Even though Dom initially rejects her offer to come along as defense, Yas crashes his awkward lunch, posing as his new fling. Suddenly and briefly liberated from his heartbreak, Dom starts to embrace Yas’s more carefree attitude toward life as their hijinks progress into the evening and they find themselves crashing a party, breaking and entering, and doing karaoke to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop.”
Even with all of Dom’s neuroses, Jonsson projects an ease on-screen that makes him an endearing romantic lead. His eyes downcast, he has an unassuming charm that creeps up on you that stands in counter to the whirlwind of charisma that Oparah unleashes. Yas uses her own confidence to mask the insecurities that Dom wears on his sleeve, and Oparah mashes up her character’s seductive freedom with her own woundedness to immensely satisfying effect. In an alluring beat, she picks out a new pair of shoes from a bargain bin and immediately discards the pair she is wearing.
The performances are augmented by Allen-Miller’s stylistic flourishes, which include fisheye shots, close-ups, and extended flashbacks where the characters observe their former mishaps. Allen-Miller packs every frame with sumptuous color. Some of it comes from the landscape of Peckham — the bright green of the park grass or the multihued graffiti on the street or the painted gates on the shops of Rye Lane Market — but some of it is purely of her own invention. The karaoke sequence is a mix of neon greens and pinks and purples.
And although the plot can start to feel just a bit slight, Allen-Miller’s energetic approach to filming Dom and Yas’ adventures makes up for whatever the narrative might be lacking. Bryon and Melia’s dialogue is natural and endearing, but as “Rye Lane” heads toward its conclusion, the stakes sometimes feel awfully low.
“Before Sunrise” is an obvious influence for “Rye Lane” as it emulates the rambling, getting-to-know-you events of Richard Linklater’s beloved classic. However, I detect, if not a full rebuke, then a sort of answer to another Richard: Richard Curtis. The Curtis-scripted “Notting Hill” takes its title from a gentrified neighborhood in London, and features it as a backdrop for the romance of white people with white friends.
“Rye Lane” highlights the thrillingly diverse population of its settings and centers on Black love. And if you needed more proof that there’s Curtis DNA, note a quick cameo from one of his regulars that I won’t spoil here. That unnamed person is the only major star in the feature, so here’s hoping it can find its audience when the film debuts on Hulu via Searchlight later this spring. Allen-Miller and her cast more than deserve the attention.
“Rye Lane” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release it to stream on Hulu on March 31.