It’s true — big things can come from small packages. Think about how many great films from recent years have short runtimes: Petite Maman (72 mins); Mid90s (85 mins); Shiva Baby (77 minutes), to name a few. Add Raine Allen-Miller’s feature-length directorial debut, Rye Lane, to that list. At only 82 minutes — 77 if you don’t include credits — it’s fair to ponder how you can run through an entire love story in that amount of time. Fear not, as Allen-Miller’s film knocks it out of the park with a tight film that’s led by an amazing duo.
Rye Lane begins with a compilation of shots overlooking various restroom stalls. You see everything from the group of teenage girls taking selfies, the businessman taking a call while simultaneously taking a piss and a baby being changed, among a few others before we settle on Dom (David Johsson), who’s trying to have a “private moment” in the stall before a big moment for himself when he encounters Yas (Vivian Oparah) for the first time.
The two are attending the same art exhibit event for their mutual friend, and they end up getting on quite well. Upon leaving, the two take a stroll all through England from the Rye Lane Market to Brexton exchanging stories and getting to know each other along the way. Oh, and that moment that Dom was trying to prepare himself for? We quickly find out that he’s prepping to meet his ex-girlfriend, Gia (Karene Peter), and her new boyfriend, Eric (Benjamin Sarpong-Broni) — Dom’s friend since grade school. After one makes the save for another, Dom and Yas embark on a one-day journey that helps both get over their recent breakups in what’s a true “slice of life” movie.
From the composition of the very first shots, it’s hard not to fall in love with Rye Lane. There’s a vibrant energy that just floods the screen from the inspired song choices that fill the background to the lead actors (more on this in a moment). Even the cinematography stands out. DP Olan Collardy makes a number of superb choices to frame the film from the aforementioned overhead shots in the bathroom stalls to utilizing low angles so that we are looking up at the characters in-frame during conversational scenes. It’s the little things that often go unrecognized that really make a relatively small film like Rye Lane pop.
The most creative choice made, however, was Rye Lane’s portrayal of flashbacks/hypotheticals. In what can best be described as breaking the fourth wall Family Guy-style, there are a number of sequences where the viewer gets to see things like breakups that the character being told the story were not present for. This storytelling vehicle is oftentimes zany, sure, but they stand out above the rest and fill in the gaps that the viewer would otherwise have to leave up to their imagination.
Above all else, front and center are Johsson and Oparah. Just like their characters, the two actors juxtapose one another and bring out the best of each other. Dom idolizes Yas for her boldness (whether justified or not is a fair question) while Dom has an earnestness that Yas has rarely seen in her love life. Their flirting and quips always felt real, and it’s a testament to both Allen-Miller, the casting director and the leads that made it work in a way that always felt authentic (just watch those awkward-but-adorable karaoke scenes). Both Johsson and Oparah are new to me as actors, but I can only hope that this is not the last of them I see.
And while the 82-minute runtime is one of the film’s greatest strengths, it only hurts the film when the inevitable make-or-break point occurs in this romance story and the two part ways after the day together. The ending is telegraphed for anyone who’s seen a romance film before, but that’s not the issue. It’s the way that there simply isn’t enough time without Dom and Yas together to fully make the biggest emotional impact that it could have. To emphasize, the ending of Rye Lane still works — it just feels rushed in the last 20 minutes. But in all honesty, if you made me choose between an 82-minute film that rushes this particular story beat or a 100-minute film that prolongs it, I’d still choose the latter.
Rye Lane is a hit and continues Searchlight Pictures/Hulu’s strong run of recent romantic films such as Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Fire Island and Rosaline (this was put out by 20th Century and Hulu but my point stands). It does feel like a festival film in that it’s so intimate you almost do a double-take when you see the Searchlight logo attached, but thankfully that means it’ll (hopefully) reach a wider demographic when it’s put on Hulu. Check it out once it hits the streamer in March.
Rye Lane premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and will be released on Hulu on March 31.