Sundance 2023: Rye Lane will make you believe in rom-coms again

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A still from Rye Lane by Raine Allen-Miller. // Courtesy of Sundance Institute

If you’ve found yourself bemoaning the state of the modern rom-com, I have five words of advice for you: check out the Sundance lineup.

True, the days of the genre dominating the box office might be over. But the beloved Sundance Film Festival has long championed slightly smaller, yet equally engrossing rom-coms—take 2020’s Palm Springs or 2017’s The Big Sick for example. This year, I’m thrilled to report that the festival has launched an instant classic of the genre: Rye Lane.

Raine Allen-Miller’s debut feature carries a deceptively simple premise: two virtual strangers team up to take their shitty exes to task, and romance ensues. However, it’s all imbued with such a vibrant sense of place and such an affection for the central duo that you’ll likely find yourself wishing you could spend even longer with them, and in the 85-minute film’s candy-colored South London.

The story opens with a continuous shot over the one place you’re guaranteed to get a good sense of a community’s ecosystem: the public toilets. The camera glides over a hodgepodge of brightly-colored stalls, tracking the diverse assortment of people you can expect to meet in the movie’s setting of Peckham, from a flock of teens taking selfies to an unlikely guy getting beat up to a parent changing a diaper. When Dom (Industry’s David Jonsson) enters, his sobs catch a surprised Yas (Vivian Oparah) off-guard. When Yas recognizes the stall weeper shortly afterward at a mutual friend’s art opening, they strike up a conversation that soon sends them wandering across Peckham, Before Sunrise-style.

Like so many romantic comedies, Dom and Yas are introduced as opposites—he’s a neurotic accountant, and she’s a bubbly aspiring costume designer who may or may not actually be as confident as she seems. They have one thing in common: heartbreak. Through a series of delightfully surreal fantasy sequences, we learn that Dom’s ex-girlfriend cheated on him with his best mate.

After Yas saves him from a disastrous meeting with the two by posing as his new flame, the stage is officially set for a day of hijinks aimed at Yas’ own snobby ex. Jonsson and Oparah share a whip-smart yet undeniably sweet chemistry, and their rapid-fire banter harkens back to an era where the fireworks of watching two charismatic stars exchange high-wire dialogue made rom-coms as thrilling as they were swoony.

Filmed in Anamorphic widescreen by fellow newcomer Olan Collardy, Rye Lane favors the zippy tracking shots and pastels of a Wes Anderson film. Rather than limiting the scope of her film, Allen-Miller spills the action out into the streets of South London.

Whether Dom and Yas are performing an impromptu rendition of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” in a club, crashing a barbeque, or weaving around the stalls of an indoor market, the production and costume design are bursting with so much detail and care that it’s not hard to give into the story’s infectious pull.

Rom-com enthusiasts will quickly be able to guess exactly which direction Rye Lane is going in. However, that doesn’t make watching Allen-Miller remix and scribble all over well-worn tropes any less engrossing.

While the film includes some clever nods to beloved British romantic comedies like Notting Hill and Love, Actually, the Black joy and introductions of Allen-Miller, Oparah, and Jonsson as exciting budding stars feel like a much-needed breath of fresh air. By the time these two lovebirds finally stumble into each other’s arms, Rye Lane has firmly established itself as not only one of the strongest Sundance titles, but one of the best rom-coms in recent memory.

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A still from Rye Lane by Raine Allen-Miller. // Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Categories: Movies