Rye Lane is the kind of infectious, quietly aspirational film that I wished there were more of at Sundance. For Park City vets, an easy descriptor might be “Before Sunrise for Black teen Londoners”, but even that feels inadequate for director Raine Allen-Miller’s vivid, hip-hop-fueled rom-com that features breakout performances by stars Vivian Oparah and David Jonsson. Bopping to the ’80s beat with wild colors and unstoppable energy, this film is a true delight and the most purely enjoyable movie here at the festival.
Swooping in through the various unisex stalls at a South London bar, Rye Lane couldn’t have a more auspicious opening. From there, we’re taken into a stall occupied by Dom (Jonsson), who is in tears following a really bad break-up. His bright pink Converse All-Stars are pretty hard to ignore for Yas (Oparah), who makes awkward small talk from the nearby stall. Dom’s ex cheated on him with his best friend, an unforgivable betrayal that has left him…well, drowning in tears on a toilet. Doesn’t get much lower than that.
Turns out that Dom isn’t the only one carrying around some relationship baggage. Yas is, as well, but he doesn’t need to know that right away. The two begin to bond at a pretentious friend’s art show, and so their journey to have their broken hearts mended begins during a walk through the lively, vivid bars and shops of Peckham. Dom kinda wants to be alone to sulk in his own way, but then he also kindof doesn’t. Yas isn’t the type to take “no” for an answer, anyway. She’s a firecracker with enough imagination for the two of them. And she takes no shit. Yas proves her loyalty early on, pretending to be Dom’s girlfriend so he looks like a stud to his ex.
Throughout, Yas leads Dom on one crazy adventure after another, and before long the two are thick as thieves. The chemistry between Oparah and Jonsson is instant and captivating. She’s the messy, complicated one and he’s more of a straight arrow, and the two just click from the moment they meet. Rye Lane never feels like a series of episodic moments, but one long conversation that you never want to end. Not only are both characters hilarious and quirky, but in gestures both small and grand (grand gestures being a recurring theme) they bolster the other’s confidence. It was a joy for me, having a few minutes to spend with these two wonderful stars, to hear them uplift one another in much the same way that Yas and Dom do in the film.
There are times when Rye Lane feels like it was made just for me. From the amazing karaoke scene and the use of Salt n Pepa’s “Shoop”, the only song I’ve ever and will ever do karaoke to, and the use of A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory” as a major plot point, I’m pretty sure co-writers Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia were poking around in my brain. But I’m also sensitive to the portrayals of Black men in romantic comedies and I’ve never seen a character quite like Dom, who wears his sensitivity and vulnerability on his sleeve. He’s not weak, far from it. But he’s hurt, and afraid of having it happen to him again. But Yas, as messy a whirlwind as she is, builds him back up until he’s got confidence, a swagger, and is unafraid of being open with her.
Rye Lane is a lovely, hilarious movie that is such a breath of fresh air. With a groovin’ soundtrack, production design that has London feeling more alive than ever, and a pair of rising stars on a lovers’ journey, Rye Lane is a blast of pure joy. It has just about everything you could want, including an amazing cameo from a rom-com stalwart that will blow you away.
Searchlight Pictures will release Rye Lane on Hulu on March 31st.