Directorial debuts are exciting because they often represent a director’s creative sensibilities in their rawest form, divorced from the studio notes that come with larger budgets. They showcase their talent as a visual storyteller within constraints that force them to prove themselves. Such is the case with Raine Allen-Miller’s first feature film, Rye Lane. Written by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia, this seemingly simple story of two people romantically coming together during an adventure through South London is elevated by direction and performances that capture the absurdity of lost loves and first dates.
When Dom (David Jonsson) becomes overwhelmed by the emotional toll of his recently ended long-term relationship, he ducks out of his friend’s art show to hide in a unisex bathroom stall and cry. When Yas (Vivian Oparah) enters the bathroom to pee, she can’t help but notice the boy with pink shoes unsuccessfully hiding his sobs behind the sounds of her flushing. Later, Yas finds Dom back in the gallery and decides to tag along with him as he runs an errand to the Rye Lane neighborhood, their conversations unearthing the tragedy of Dom’s broken heart.
At first, it seems that Rye Lane is going to fall into the common romcom trap of only fully realizing the personality of one half of the prospective couple, with Yas serving solely as a quirky impetus for the reserved Dom to shed his emotional baggage. Thankfully, Yas turns out to have her own baggage to unload, with obfuscation baked directly into her character arc. Jonsson and Oparah have a natural chemistry, so not only does it never get old spending time with them, but they feel like people who should get together because they bring out the best in each other, even as they provoke each other into confronting their former relationships in increasingly comical ways.
Allen-Miller presents this feature-length meet-cute with tongue planted firmly in cheek, as Dom and Yas’ revealing conversations give way to purposely stagey flashbacks that amplify their emotional states through the skewed lens of their broken hearts. Rye Lane never tips over fully into cartoonish exaggeration, but the playful presentation of ids and egos through the dreamlike perspectives of its leads goes a long way toward making the film stand out as more than just a showcase for freewheeling chemistry.
Equally important to Rye Lane is Rye Lane itself, presented as a neighborhood drenched in pastels and brimming with personality in every frame. Scenes frequently have an interesting background, giving the film a uniquely lived-in feel, like there are a million tiny stories happening just offscreen. Granted, this is often presented through an over-reliance on wide-angle lenses, a stylistic choice that quickly becomes distracting as the edges of the frame distort into an unearned surrealism during the film’s more grounded moments. But the intent to capture as much of the environment as possible is understandable and forgivable given how compellingly Allen-Miller presents this little slice of London life.
Rye Lane is a slight film, clocking in at just over 80 minutes, that embraces casual quirk more than full-on, gut-busting comedy. But it’s a promising start to Raine Allen-Miller’s feature filmmaking career. She coaxes her performers into giving the film a distinct and heartfelt voice that casually lulls you into emotional vulnerability while still leaving room for gags centered on getting caught searching through an aunt’s panty drawers or clowning on a stuck-up ex-girlfriend’s dumb current boyfriend. Sometimes being cute is enough, and Allen-Miller’s brand of cute is certainly compelling enough that audiences should keep an eye out for whatever she does next.
Rye Lane premieres on Hulu on March 31, 2023.