[This review was originally published three months ago at Give Me Some Light on Substack. Subscribe, and you’ll get these reviews while the movie is still brand new!]

Maybe I’m just a sucker right now for movies that begin with grief and end with joy. I don’t know. But on the date night when Anne and I took a chance on Rye Lane — now streaming on Hulu — the evening very quickly felt like a celebration of a long overdue springtime. The weather outside was frightful, but we found this jaunt around South London just so delightful.

I’d first heard the buzz from Sundance. That doesn’t mean what it used to, by the way — it just means that a few of my students watched streaming-access features from the film festival right here in Seattle. And for one in particular, this was a highlight. “I may have already seen my favorite movie of the year!” he announced.

If you focus your eyes, you can see past the pink handbag and discover our dynamic duo—Dom and Yas. [Image from the Searchlight trailer.]

In hopes that I might be pleasantly surprised, I avoided detailed reviews until the Hulu debut. And I got to experience the joys of Raine Allen Miller’s debut rom-com without any preconceived notions about where it would take me — except that I’d been splashed by a wave of Before Sunrise comparisons.

And okay, sure: A young man and a young woman meet and meander and talk a lot. That happens in Before Sunset, too. And there’s more than one winking allusion to the last line of that movie’s sequel — “Baby, you’re gonna miss that plane.” But that’s the extent of it. Instead of travelers from two different countries meeting and exploring somewhere else, their sexual tension rising to a fever pitch, we get two Londoners meeting in a unisex bathroom and adventuring around the city together, fighting the break-up blues with caper comedy and cutesy goofball mishaps.

If you SEE Rye Lane, you can say you SAW Rye Lane. [Image from the Searchlight trailer.]

This is much more calibrated for crowd-pleasing than any Richard Linklater love story. Rye Lane isn’t really intent on introducing us to real-world human beings with their complexities and nuance. It’s a a formula rom-com that loves formula rom-coms—so much so that it includes an eye-roller of an allusion to Love Actually. And its characters are only “complicated” in that they’re stuck in personal crises that would usually suggest a rebound relationship is a bad idea. But that’s all fine, as it juices up the routine with audacious aesthetics, some flipped genre cliches, some reversals of expectations, some solid laughs, refreshingly efficient editing, a groovy playlist, and show-no-mercy silliness. In The Irish Times, Donald Clarke writes, “The structure could hardly be more traditional, or the final romantic gesture (truly delightful) more in line with the gospel of Wilder and Lubitsch. But the bebop cutting and the busy mise-en-scène ensure the audience is forever on an agreeable edge.” If this genre is your jam, I think you’re unlikely to find an entry more engaging in 2023.

This Stall of Heartbreak is about to become the Stall of the Meet Cute. [Image from the Searchlight trailer.]

Miller’s movies sets up its meet cute in a unisex bathroom, where Dom (David Jonsson) is sobbing over Instagram evidence that his dream girl has left him for his best friend, and where the aptly named Yas (Vivian Oparah) is a manic pixie Yas Queen! girl seems eager to find a broken-hearted boy she can pep talk in order to dodge her own troubling business. Here’s where the movie dips a toe in Before Sunrise’s waters: Yas starts walking with Dom, poking and prodding his broken heart with questions, challenging his self-destructive paradigms, and prying open his eyes to the realm of possibility.

As Yas, actress Vivian Oparah is radiant and charismatic. [Image from the Searchlight trailer.]

In her review at RogerEbert.com, Peyton Robinson writes that Rye Lane “leans into the awkwardness of its characters, earning its empathy with reality instead of fantasy.” That’s true. Despite the color-scheme being turned up to “11,” and the contexts suffering an overdose of quirk, there is something about these conversations that seems familiar. “This is a romance you may know,” Robinson adds, “not one you only see in the movies.” I would suggest revising that: This is a relationship I know. The fact that it blooms into romance feels more like a requirement of the genre. I might have enjoyed the film even more if the storytellers had mustered the courage to develop something more unexpected and plausible: a one-of-a-kind friendship.

But then, so many of our experiences at the movies are influenced by our experiences outside the movies. I had a good female friend named Melody who gave me similar pep talks almost 30 years ago when I thought a woman of my dreams had ruined my love life forever. At the time, I appreciated Melody’s efforts, but couldn’t yet believe in her reassurances that this might be a good thing, a chance to find something better. Now I look back with gratitude for her attention and her time, even though our conversations never veered into romance. (She was already on her way to the altar with somebody else, and I was too hurt to imagine anything more.) Why not make movies about relationships and conversations like that?

Dom and Yas discover their secret handshake. [Image from the Searchlight trailer.]

So, it’s not Yas’s motivational therapy that tests my suspension of disbelief here. And it’s not Dom’s interest in Yas, as she’s flaunting dangerous levels of charm. She’s a fireworks show that lights up his sky in his darkest hour. (The movie seems calibrated to make Oparah a major star; I doubt Jonsson’s career will take off like hers does.)

What boggles my mind is how Yas could fall for Dom with Dom in this condition. And so quickly! As they wander the streets of South London, as Yas convinces Dom to challenge his ex and his friend for their mad cruelty, and as she then convinces Dom to help her steal back some treasured vinyl from an ex of her own, there’s enough going on that viewers might not have the time to ask themselves: What does she see in him?

The real star of the movie: South London. [Image from the Searchlight trailer.]

I mean, I get it: We can never know what draws some people together. But my puzzlement over why she makes so many first moves here … it became an unscratchable itch. Your enjoyment of this movie will depend largely on whether you think these two can fall in love. That’s where I’m having trouble.

Yes, as anyone who’s seen it will tell you, the leads are adorable together. But the most inspiring love story here is the one between director Raine Allen-Miller and South London, which is so alive with bold colors, lived-in textures, international flavors, and spicy aromas. I’ll follow her into any genre just to see what other neighborhoods she’s excited about.

Has any recent movie made such a bold use of the fish-eye lens? [Image from the Searchlight trailer.]

So, re-up your subscription to Hulu, pop the popcorn, poor two glasses of wine, and have a good date night with Rye Lane. Just don’t set your expectations to Before Sunset levels.

For some reason, as the movie was playing I kept expecting to see John Boyega and other cast members from Attack the Block. This feels like a romantic comedy that could take place in the same world as that fantastic alien invasion flick. Come to think of it, I’d love to see Jonsson and Oparah stealing scenes in the upcoming Attack the Block sequel. They’d fit right, even if they played the same characters. Maybe Edgar Wright is a better comparison here for Raine Allen-Miller than Richard Linklater.

For Dom, movies serve as medicine for heartbreak. [Image from the Searchlight trailer.]

I’m grateful for this bright, shiny, stylish good time at the movies. It comes crashing into my season of disappointment with the same high spirits that Yas brings to the broken-hearted Dom. I needed the colors. I needed the laughs. I needed the music. I’m going to drive to work and back with this movie’s playlist for a while, and I expect the colors of my commute will suddenly seem hyper-saturated. These days, a little color therapy wouldn’t hurt.


What others are saying:

Esther Zuckerman at indieWire:

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.

Alison Willmore at Vulture:

Rye Lane was filmed in the spring of 2021 and has the unmistakable energy of the first nice day of the year, when everyone in a city is out and about, whether it’s to run errands, to hang out in the park, or to meander the way Dom and Yas are. The movie’s London is vibrant, random, and immigrant-driven, and it bustles in the background of every shot, whether it’s children shooting a TikTok dance, a shirtless man leaning out a terraced-house window, or a Tai Chi class full of senior citizens in the park. Rye Lane asks you to fall in love with Dom and Yas, but failing that, it will have you hopelessly smitten with its South London setting and with that feeling of having the day open and nothing to do but wander and see what may happen.

Michael Phillips at The Houston Chronicle:

Even when the screenplay favors an arch quality when we wouldn’t mind a looser, easier-going touch — it’s as stylized and storybook-ish a vision of modern London as the delightful “Paddington” films — the actors, chiefly Oparah and David Jonsson, make for highly engaging company.