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On the Rebound

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Rye Lane (2023)

South London rise up for “Rye Lane!” Finally we have a fun movie for us! In the past quarter-century, West London has enjoyed posh romcoms like “Notting Hill” or cheery kids movies like “Paddington 2.” North London has worthy tales for the moneyed set of a certain age like “Hampstead” or “Lady in the Van.” East London can claim endless gangster movies (including “Anti-Social,” a.k.a. the one with Meghan Markle) as well as Hollywood attempts at British realism like “Run, Fatboy, Run” and the latest “Tomb Raider.” All south London previously had to call its own was the standalone excellence of “Attack the Block” (which gave us John Boyega) as well as many grim misery-porn crime flicks. (Despite Bridget Jones famously living in Borough Market, in tone and style those are West London movies.) The general common thread of South London movies was violent cliché, like in 2019’s “Blue Story,” a crime thriller with Micheal Ward in his first lead role, which was a big financial success.

But times they are a-changin’. Sarah Gavron’s (East London) “Rocks” was also a critical smash in 2019; and Steve McQueen’s (West London) “Small Axe” anthology series was a landmark television event in 2020. This year’s Sundance Film Festival featured the world premieres of “Polite Society,” a (West London) movie about a teenage British Muslim girl made by a British Muslim woman director, as well as “Rye Lane.” It’s named for a street in Peckham, a formerly notorious South London area mainly notorious because mainly Black people lived there. But just look at Notting Hill. What North Londoners used to casually call “Apache country” is now the social hub of the city, where all the cool young people spend their Friday nights. And with “Rye Lane,” the battle to convince British gatekeepers that movies about nonwhite Britons don’t need a white lens has finally been won.

Accountant Dom (David Jonsson) and clothes buyer/wannabe fashion designer Yas (Vivian Oparah) are both at a photography exhibit for their mutual friend Nathan’s (Simon Manyonda) latest project. That is pictures of the insides of people’s mouths, since the mouth is “the Stonehenge of the face.” Dom is bawling his eyes out in the unisex toilets over an insta post; and when Yas overhears the sobbing, she can’t help trying to cheer the stranger up. But Dom has to go; he’s off for a meal with the people from the post: his ex Gia (Karene Peter) and her new partner/his childhood best friend, Eric (Benjamin Sarpong-Broni, who steals his every scene with amiable foolishness). Disgusted by his weakness, Yas follows along to try to talk him out of it – after all, after her recent breakup with Jules (Malcolm Atrobrah), she certainly isn’t stalking him and his new partner, Tabby (Alice Hewkin), on their socials or in real life, no sir. She is not fretting that Jules still has her A Tribe Called Quest vinyl and hasn’t given it back. There is no way that she and Dom would end up on a quest around the city to get that vinyl back. This is absolutely not a distraction from anything else Yas and Dom are separately trying to avoid dealing with. Of course not.

With that set-up, writers Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia and director Raine Allen-Miller send the adorable Yas and Dom through real locations in Peckham and Brixton on a sunny summer’s day. (Anna Rhodes’s production design gets everything exactly right.) This isn’t a rom-com one-shot like “Stay the Night,” though – there are too many flashbacks and uproarious fantasy sequences, like when a movie theater full of Doms reacts to Yas’s version of her breakup with Jules. The outstandingly and awkwardly observant restaurant scene – with comedian Munya Chawawa playing a keyboard in the corner – is capped when Yas insults Eric to his face; but as she complimented his forearms first, he refuses to get mad, to Gia’s dismay. Dom is left goggling in joy and in thanks he offers to buy Yas a drink. They end up at a barbecue where Dom attempts to chat about music with the uncles present. When one snatches his phone and blasts his latest tracks over the sound system, there is a genuine belly laugh (even though, in the mildest of quibbles, the music of this film has clearly been designed for American audiences). And all the while Yas talks 19 to the dozen, Dom nervously shrugs his shoulders; and we get to enjoy watching them figure each other out.

This is a radical movie in that its sweet romance between middle-class characters is completely fresh for movies about Black Britons, as well as for movies set in south London. There’s no crime or menace and with Olan Collardy’s cinematography (which makes unusual use of fisheye lenses) there’s no reason why there should be: London is generally a safe city and with a little money it’s easy to have a nice time; and “Rye Lane” makes sure the two young clever, funny, cute people get to enjoy themselves. Mr. Jonsson projects a mama’s-boy charm that’s very appealing, while Ms. Oparah’s bolshiness and self-belief equally maintains the right tone under her tsunami of chat. Their sunny London is packed with people living their own interesting lives – the woman with the balloons, the man in the cowboy outfit, the woman smoking outside the party – and Yas and Dom are just two more pieces of the city’s exciting jigsaw. There are so many perfect little moments, like when Yas has a cheery chat in a shop after complimenting some random’s outfit, then Dom tries the same and is told “go suck your mum.” The question of whether or not things will work out for them is hardly the point. “Rye Lane” has found a fresh way to tell a London story onscreen, and the fact is succeeds so charmingly is just icing on the cake.

One more thing: There is an uncredited cameo in this movie that is on a par with Matt Damon’s in “EuroTrip.” There is no possible higher praise. This movie is a delightful gem from start to finish (which includes the quick scene after the credits).


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