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10 March 2023

Rye Lane is a bright, euphoric south London romcom

Raine Allen-Miller’s visually dynamic debut turns a boy-meets-girl story into a joyous fantasy.

By Ryan Gilbey

After Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive, the latest street to lend its name to a movie is… Rye Lane. That lively arterial thoroughfare in Peckham, a corner of south London still associated with Only Fools and Horses and Desmond’s, is the backdrop for a romantic comedy that could double as an estate agent’s sizzle reel. Scenes take place at hotspots including the Peckhamplex cinema, the TOLA bar and Il Giardino, a Sardinian restaurant with a lemony yellow exterior. Even a mini-supermarket shimmers like Aladdin’s cave. In their approach to colour, the first-time director Raine Allen-Miller and her cinematographer Olan Collardy are like kids at the pick-and-mix counter, giggling as they grab another fistful of chartreuse, electric blue and shocking pink.

Rye Lane establishes its romcom credentials immediately. Yas (Vivian Oparah), a fashion buyer whose fluffy pink bag might have been made from the pelt of a Furby toy, hears the sniffles of Dom (David Jonsson), a jilted accountant, as they perch in adjacent toilet cubicles at an art gallery. The partition recalls the split-screen that made Doris Day and Rock Hudson seem to be sharing a bed and a bathtub while on the phone in Pillow Talk.

People are forever bemoaning the ways in which modern advances have inhibited movie plots but without gender-neutral toilets Yas might never have eavesdropped on Dom, or spied his pink Converse under the door. That’s how she knows who he is when they coincide in front of one of the exhibition’s colossal portraits of an open mouth. “I love the way the tongue follows you round the room,” says Dom.

Without revealing that she was the woman in the next stall, Yas lifts his spirits as they walk the streets together. Dom is on his way to lunch with his ex, Gia (Karene Peter), and Yas takes it upon herself to gatecrash the meal posing as his sweetheart, improvising an entire courtship for Gia’s benefit. Initially gobsmacked, the sheepish Dom gradually warms to the masquerade, embellishing and embroidering until their simple boy-meets-girl fiction is like a lighter-waving encore at a stadium rock show.

This transformation of reality into euphoric fantasy represents the essence of Rye Lane, with its flashbacks presenting life as we wish it had happened – Dom smashing through his love rival’s door, or Yas humiliating her own neglectful ex. Characters have been wandering in and out of one another’s flashbacks since at least Annie Hall and Padre Padrone, both from 1977. Rye Lane goes a step further, though, by having Yas in a park still munching on the popcorn that she was eating during a flashback set in a cinema. There is constantly a sense that the film is bursting at the seams – its most emblematic image shows a woman struggling to yank a bouquet of helium balloons through a shop doorway – and no wonder, when its characters are blithely carrying snacks across the space-time continuum.

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That vitality informs the picture’s visual language. Ambitious overhead tracking shots, widescreen cinematography, occasional use of a split diopter that makes one half of the lens near-sighted and the other far-sighted – all are elements more typical of an action movie than a romcom. The effect is to beef up a bare-bones narrative; Allen-Miller has described the movie, after all, as “two people walking around south London having a fabulous time”. But it also reflects how social-media-savvy twentysomethings might experience the world. The chasm between their curated selves and the shabbier reality is where much of the comedy and poignancy reside. Dom boasts of his love of Kingston (“Jamaica, not ‘upon Thames’”) during a moment of performative blackness at an Afro-Caribbean barbecue, whereas the Daniel Bedingfield tracks on his phone sing a different song.

Serious points about the cultural stranglehold on the romcom genre are made breezily: white actors are relegated to the walk-on parts usually reserved for performers of colour (Brixton oddball, night-bus drunk), and when Yas and Dom eat at Guac’ Actually, they are served by a familiar face from the Richard Curtis stable. The one disappointment is that the film’s climax takes place not in Peckham but in sight of St Paul’s, the London Eye and the Shard. Even those landmarks are upstaged by Oparah, who makes precision comic timing look as effortless as shrugging, and Jonsson, whose right eyebrow is permanently arched – a fittingly wry look for Rye Lane.

Rye Lane” is in cinemas from 17 March

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe