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'Rye Lane' is a fresh and charming rom-com that also feels comfortingly familiar

Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oparah) in <em>Rye Lane</em>.
Chris Harris
Searchlight Pictures
Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oparah) in Rye Lane.

The meet-cute in Rye Lane occurs in a public restroom at a mutual friend's art show, though not in a dirty-sexy kind of way; it's actually quite awkward. Dom (David Jonsson) is perched on a toilet seat, having a big cry over an ex-girlfriend, when Yas (Vivian Oparah) overhears his sad whimpers echoing from the other side of a stall. Is he alright? she inquires of the blubbering stranger. Slightly irritated, he brushes her off – "Trying to have a private moment here," he says unironically – but a few minutes later, after Dom has finally pulled himself together enough to mingle, they'll unwittingly meet again, this time face-to-face in the gallery. And, as these things in rom-com land can reliably go, witty banter turns into a day of bonding over shared musical tastes and past heartbreaks, plus an impromptu karaoke session.

Raine Allen-Miller's extremely charming directorial debut Rye Lane, with a screenplay by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia, is a British rom-com that feels fresh while cloaking fans of the genre in a warm, soothing blanket of familiarity. Will our central couple start to fall for each other, only to face some big existential obstacle that briefly pulls them apart before a grand gesture finally brings them back together again? Of course – that journey is why many of us seek out rom-coms in the first place! But in this particular journey of Dom and Yas, there's also something special here; the material strikes a balance between specificity and broad humor that fosters confidence and playfulness that's impossible to resist.

As with previous generations of young and highly emotional twentysomethings, Dom and Yas are firmly at that in-between stage in life where they're stumbling into "adulting": Dom, an accountant, recently moved back in with his parents after breaking up with his ex Gia (Karene Peter), who cheated on him with his best friend Eric (Benjamin Sarpong-Broni); Yas is also fresh from a breakup, and struggling to break into the costume design industry. Each has their ways of dealing with their respective roadblocks – she buries her insecurities under faux self-assuredness, while he wallows in self-pity – and in a not-unusual dynamic, they offer support and advice to one another yet seem oblivious as to how to get over their own hang-ups.

This propels the romp and their acquaintanceship forward as they make their way through a series of mini-adventures around bustling South London and the heavily Afro-Caribbean communities embedded within it. This includes an impromptu double "date" with Gia and Eric – in which Yas tags along and pretends to be Dom's new girl to make them jealous – and a quest to steal back Yas's Low End Theory vinyl from her pompous ex's pad. These experiences are rendered vividly, sometimes through theatrical set-pieces evoking the outsized intensity of the characters' feelings, like Yas's recounting of how she ended things with her ex, which is literally presented on a stage to an audience made up of a plurality of Dom clones hanging on every detail of her story. Other times, the film's off-kilter sensibilities manifest through cinematographer Olan Collardy's occasional use of a fisheye lens to distort perspective or through a clever nod to a beloved rom-com via a surprise cameo.

It's the kind of movie that oozes stylistic flair in nearly every frame but doesn't skimp on the storytelling and world-building. Much of this can be attributed to the grounded performances of Jonsson and Oparah, who coolly feed off the other's energy and naturally slip into the getting-to-know-you vibes. Whether as friends or something more, it's easy to see their characters' somewhat opposed personalities meshing well together. There's also a clear sense of place and how Dom and Yas move through it; their eclectic network of artist friends, family members, and ex-lovers are memorable and distinct even if they show up for a single scene. (Eric, in particular, is totally That Dude we've all encountered at some point or another, a pitch-perfect embodiment of the handsome dimwit who is just here to have a good time, mate!)

What Rye Lane offers, then, is a vibrant addition to the rom-com canon that may call to mind an array of visual and thematic reference points, from the Before Sunrise trilogy and When Harry Met Sally to Hype Williams-directed music videos and Spike Lee's immersive New York City-set films. Yet it also carves out a space all its own, creating a story and characters that feel wholly lived in, messy, and just plain cool. If we're truly in the midst of a revival of the genre, this is one of the new batches that rises to the top.

Rye Lane is streaming on Hulu beginning March 31.

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Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.