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Rye Lane Review: A Meet-Cute For The Ages

  • One of the most delightful romcoms in years, thanks to a hilarious script, and the winning chemistry between its two leads
  • It's also one of the most stylish British directorial debuts too, shaking up the visual conventions of the UK romantic comedy
  • At a brisk 82 minutes, you will want to spend more time with Yas and Dom

We know what to expect from the British romcom, ever since "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill" perfected the formula still in use to this day. The male lead is a repressed romantic in the Hugh Grant or Colin Firth vein, his love interest is either an impossibly glamorous woman from overseas or someone from outside his social bubble who awakes a new lease of life within him, and the balance of cringe-comedy and overbearing sentimentality will make you wince and weep in equal measure. Richard Curtis, possibly the most famous living romantic comedy writer, has seldom deviated from this format; even as his screenplays have taken on increasingly high concepts in recent years, he knows there's no point in changing the core ingredients to these stories.

If this is contributing to one of the U.K.'s major cinematic imports feeling staler and staler, then here comes "Rye Lane," which not only breathes life back into the great British romantic comedy but completely blows up all expectations of what this familiar genre can be. The directorial debut of Raine Allen-Miller — a critical sensation at its Sundance premiere back in January — is at face value a straightforward meet cute in the same realm as "Before Sunrise": A chance meeting that completely changes the characters' entire perspectives on life and love. But in its punchy brand of comedy and highly stylized aesthetic reminiscent of French auteurs Michel Gondry and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it feels like a familiar narrative has been given a much-needed update, even if that is just importing the stylish visuals of two Gallic auteurs across the Channel and making them feel distinctively British in the process.

One of the most stylish romcoms in years

David Jonsson stars as Dom, a sensitive soul still in a period of deep mourning after his girlfriend of several years cheated on him with his childhood best friend. As he's distraught because he's about to meet them both for the first time in months, his first encounter with Yas (Vivian Oparah) is through the door of a toilet stall, where she's distracted because of how loudly this grown man is weeping. The pair quickly strike up a rapport, spending the afternoon together as they make their way through the South London districts of Peckham and Brixton, eventually enlisting each other's help in elaborate schemes — ranging from faking a relationship to outright burglary — so they can get over both of their recent break ups once and for all.

Allen-Miller has expressed some irritation about critics comparing her debut to the works of Wes Anderson; she isn't, after all, relying on intricate production design in the same manner, instead softly heightening the pre-existing locations so they translate to her lightly surrealist visual sensibility. Making the most of her limited budget, the filmmaker relies on a straightforward series of gimmicks (a fisheye lens-tracking shot, for example) to help elevate the grounded nature of the comedy. Thanks to the gag-heavy screenplay by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia, this never becomes cloying in the way it sounds on paper. The director instead seems like she's trying to make each shot show a city familiar to her in a new light, aiming to shake off any critique that she's merely holding a mirror up to it. She wants to make the city feel as thrillingly alive and unpredictable as the day her two protagonists are spending together.

It's for this reason that Michel Gondry and Jean Pierre-Jeunet feel like more apt directorial comparisons than Wes Anderson, even if that feels like a dated comparison, with their best, most culturally significant work now decades behind them. The comparisons with Gondry, a prolific music video director best known for helming "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," are admittedly all surface level; Allen-Miller doesn't find a single dialogue sequence she couldn't elevate via a simple visual trick in the same manner as that genre-hopping auteur. But it's Jeunet, forever best known for making "Amelie," whose spiritual fingerprints are all over this vision of London. Like his most famous film, it transforms a world-famous city into something borderline magical realist, a sprawling urban playground where seemingly anything can happen. Strangers can change your life in a matter of minutes, and even world-famous movie stars can appear in unexpected places (as one Richard Curtis regular does in a semi-meta cameo here).

A relationship to root for

However, the film's nods to "Amelie" seem to extend beyond the broad strokes and right down into the specifics of the screenplay. What is this if not for an R-rated fairytale that keeps one foot in reality, with a female lead who steps into its male lead's life to steer him away from emotional chaos via several elaborate schemes, in the same way that Audrey Tatou's quirky heroine did more than 20 years ago? If this sounds like Yas is a mere manic pixie dream girl on paper, existing only to help a man get closure from a long-dormant relationship, then I've undervalued the strength of characterization here, with Bryon and Melia's screenplay slowly revealing that this is all a coping mechanism to recover from her own bad breakup, hiding everything behind a sunny disposition she wears like a suit of armor.

Neither romantic lead is too badly damaged by their recent pasts, nor comes with baggage beyond their own lack of closure, ensuring all emotional beats are hit swiftly before we move to the next comedic set piece. And don't be mistaken: "Rye Lane" is an early contender for the funniest film of 2023, using straightforward conceits — from Yas crashing Dom's awkward lunch with his ex and her new boyfriend to the pair breaking into Yas' ex's house to retrieve her missing A Tribe Called Quest vinyl — and mining as many laughs out of them as possible. It's easy to overlook because of the overwhelming sense of style and the frequent surrealistic cutaway gags, but much of the humor lands because it is effectively grounded. Anybody who has ever been through a bad breakup will be alternating between cringing and belly-laughing when they're not overwhelmed by just how visually stunning its depiction of London life is.

But ultimately, the reason "Rye Lane" succeeds is the same reason why any great romcom succeeds: I fell in love with these characters and I wanted to see them end up together. As fresh as this makes the genre feel, I was thankful that this was the one romantic comedy cliché Allen-Miller's film remained faithful to.

"Rye Lane" arrives on Hulu on Friday, March 31.