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Tag along with two young Londoners recovering from breakups in 'Rye Lane'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new romantic comedy "Rye Lane," a pair of young Londoners share a special day in South London. The film, which is airing on Hulu, marks the arrival of a new wave of Black British talent, both on camera and behind it. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says he was carried along by "Rye Lane's" wonderful spirit.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: For much of the 20th century, romantic comedies were a movie-house staple, serving up such iconic pairings as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Rock Hudson and Doris Day, Diane Keaton and the now-disfavored Woody Allen. The genre began to lose steam in the '90s, around the time everyone began using the word rom-com, a decidedly unromantic term that only heightens the sense that we're being offered something formulaic. Of course, the best way to escape that perception is by doing something original - finding a fresh spin, retooling the format, or focusing on characters who normally don't get to star in romantic comedies.

That's what we get in "Rye Lane," a vivid new British film that marks the feature debut of director Raine Allen-Miller. Funny and high spirited, it centers on two young Black Londoners who spend a day together while recovering from terrible breakups. Although what happens is far from unpredictable, the film takes you on an enjoyable journey through a south-of-the-Thames London you seldom see on screen. In classic fashion, the movie begins with the collision between opposites, where Dom, played by David Jonsson, is sweet, courteous and buttoned up. Yas - that's Vivian Oparah - is a fast-talking young woman whose behavior borders on the kooky. They meet cutely, of course, when Yas overhears Dom sobbing over his lost love in an art gallery bathroom. Spotting him back inside the gallery, she chats him up to cheer him up. And soon, rather like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the "Before Sunrise" trilogy, the two set forth onto the streets, talking.

Over the course of the next few hours, Yas and Dom wander through the vibrantly alive South London neighborhoods of Brixton and Peckham, shot in Jell-O colors, often with fisheye lenses. Along the way they laugh, argue, sing and in two key scenes - one funny, the other painful - encounter both of their exes. They also swap stories about their lives, with Dom confessing he used to work at KFC, and Yas saying she hopes to be a movie costume designer. Here, they walk through a Brixton mall. And when Yas asks Dom what he does now that he's grown up, he makes a voluminously unhip admission.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RYE LANE")

DAVID JONSSON: (As Dom) Oh, I'm an accountant. Boring.

VIVIAN OPARAH: (As Yas) OK. No free popcorn chicken, but still, that's, like, a proper job.

JONSSON: (As Dom) Yeah, it's not particularly glamorous.

OPARAH: (As Yas) No.

JONSSON: (As Dom) I actually kind of love it.

OPARAH: (As Yas) Oh, is that what you've always wanted to do? Have you got yourself some thwarted ambition burning away in your gut?

JONSSON: (As Dom) You know, you're very...

OPARAH: (As Yas) Peng? Refreshingly disarming?

JONSSON: (As Dom) You ask a lot of questions.

OPARAH: (As Yas) I'm interested in people's messes.

JONSSON: (As Dom) What makes you think I've got a mess?

OPARAH: (As Yas) Everyone has a mess. Sorry.

JONSSON: (As Dom) OK. You know, I think I did always want to be an accountant. Is that weird?

OPARAH: (As Yas) Don't ask me. I wanted to be Prince when I was little, specifically "Purple Rain" Prince.

JONSSON: (As Dom) Yeah?

OPARAH: (As Yas) Yeah. I made myself a little costume and everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: It's clear that Allen-Miller and her writers, Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia, know the tradition they're working in. The pairing of staid Dom and freewheeling Yas harks back to classics like "Bringing Up Baby," "Breakfast At Tiffany's" and "What's Up, Doc?" in which the heroine's fizz helps enliven the dull hero. The movie nods to newer romantic comedies, too. Yas and Dom visit a burrito shack named Love, Guactually that's run by none other than Colin Firth, a genre stalwart in everything from "Pride And Prejudice" to "Bridget Jones's Diary."

Now, I do wish the filmmakers had learned a bit more from the subtler masters of the genre. While the best romantic comedies draw on deep aquifers of feeling, "Rye Lane's" script exudes a fear that we might get bored. Deliberately slight at 82 minutes, it offers dialogue that's too relentlessly quippy and secondary characters who should be richer. Yas and Dom's exes are made so cartoonishly awful, we can't see why our heroes would ever have dated, much less loved, them. You see, we do like Dom and Yas. Greased with a gentle vibe, Jonsson's quietly appealing performance makes him a generous foil for his co-star. And in an eye-catching turn that will surely launcher to bigger things, Oparah wows us with her whirling brio. If Dom is the sturdy soul with his feet anchored a bit too firmly on the ground, Yas is the magic carpet that will carry them both aloft.

In the end, "Rye Lane" pulls off the seductive feat of conjuring a world touched by enchantment. Allen-Miller brings out the glamour in less prosperous neighborhoods that, unlike the chicly gentrified bastion of Notting Hill, are often presented as troubled. Her racially mixed South London is a swirl of luscious fruit stalls, good time karaoke bars, streets bursting with life, eccentricity and warmth. She makes us want to tag along.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new film "Rye Lane," which is streaming on Hulu. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Brooke Shields reflects on how she was sexually objectified as a child and teenager in films like "Pretty Baby," in which she played a child prostitute, and "Blue Lagoon" and ads for Calvin Klein jeans. The 57-year-old actress is the subject of the new documentary "Pretty Baby." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.