Rye Lane - Raine Allen-Smith
Credit: Chris Harris/Searchlight Pictures
by Esmé Holden Featured Film Streaming Scene

Rye Lane — Raine Allen-Smith

March 31, 2023

On a personal note, Rye Lane couldn’t have come at a more significant time. I only recently moved away from South London, and have started to feel homesick for the exact places that Raine Allen-Miller’s debut feature film captures so lovingly. It’s not just that I’ve spent time in almost all of this movie’s locations, but that many of the most meaningful moments of the last few years of my life took place on these very streets of Peckham and Brixton: I found love and my closest friend, and I came to understand my gender dysphoria there. This intimacy makes it hard for me to imagine someone watching this movie and not feeling the same reverence for the faded Bovril sign just outside the Ritzy that I do. Allen-Miller clearly feels the same way — she moved the story from Camden, where it was set in the original version of Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia’s script.

Allen-Miller’s love in Rye Lane is not just for these specific little landmarks though, but the life that teems all around them. The first shot of Rye Lane tracks across a line of bathroom stalls, a view of life glimpsed in what we see — everything from love to vomit — and made all the more diverse by the fact that these bathrooms are gender neutral. It also offers an opening for the film’s romantic comedy, when Yas (Vivan Oparah) hears Dom (David Jonsson) crying over a girl who broke up with him — even after he found out she was sleeping with his best friend — over three months ago. Maybe she sees some of herself in him, as she’s also just endured a break-up, though one she claims was on her own terms. They recognize one another outside, at their mutual friend’s gallery show which features only close-up photos of mouths (they are “the stonehenge of the face,” the artist claims), and their interactions are awkward. But when they decide to help one another in their mutual bids at chaotic and joyful revenge on their respective exes, the relationship begins to grow into something more.

From its gender neutral toilets to Yas’ handmade outfits, Rye Lane is very of the moment, which is to its credit; the idea that a movie should always aim for a certain timelessness is quite regressive in many ways. Of course, such films will naturally interact with their own time anyway, but fighting against this and reaching toward some grand narrative often flattens specificity into mythology. And this move from real life to abstraction has often been weaponized: if something doesn’t fit into a single great human experience, it must be aberrant or wrong, too many have argued. It’s the exact opposite of Allen-Miller’s joie de vivre, her genuine love of diversity, but also of her specificity. This is a beautiful portrait of a place in transition, and it feels like it will register even more powerfully years from now if the process of gentrification, which has been starting to gut the Afro-Caribbean community that made Brixton what it is, continues unabated; if Peckham is turned into nothing but trendy brunch places in the shadow of high-rise apartments. Rye Lane, in its celebration of this specific place in our specific time, asks us to challenge our complicity, from whatever our individual vantages may be. The complication, then, is that for all the authenticity that Allen-Miller brings, the movie may itself also be complicit: it presents these places with an allure and attractiveness that may appeal to the kind of people who will price out the original communities.

Either way, narrowing our reading only to this thread does some disservice to the film’s vision — it doesn’t simply flatten and glamorize. Like Yas, who at first seems like something of a manic pixie dream girl and the ethos of Peckham and Brixton brought to affected life, Rye Lane is more complex and vulnerable than the vibrant and charismatic image projected. The wide-angle lenses and candy-colored lights of Olan Collardy’s cinematography don’t paint everything in the same shade, but instead emphasize a brightness in every moment. When Dom is at his very lowest, sitting in the cinema alone after finding out his girlfriend is cheating on him, the light of the projector pours over his head; he’s plunked within one of those famous shots that so often romanticizes the movie-going experience. But this isn’t ironic, and it’s not a joke at his expense. In fact, it’s one of the movie’s most vibrant images, Collardy and Allen-Miller coaxing out all the conflicting feelings taking place within this scene and allowing them, like all the myriad colors, to share the same space. It’s at once tragic, pathetic, funny, and maybe the best thing to ever happen to Dom.

If the third act of Rye Lane becomes a little predictable and the gears of the script move more obviously, it’s easy to forgive because the rom-com template here is really just a framework to house what Allen-Miller is most interested in. The heart of the movie has little to do with the way that Yas and Dom fall out, nor how they inevitably find their way back together, but rather it’s in the little moments between narrative beats where other people are captured moving through their everyday. The fact that most of Rye Lane takes place over a 24-hour span suggests that it’s showing only a fragment of life in this place; that the camera could easily pan and find countless other stories equally worth following. For those who have spent intimate time in Brixton and Peckham, seeing all of this unfold in the margins and peripheries couldn’t be more natural. But Allen-Miller engages with Rye Lane’s spaces with such palpable wonder that even those with less proximity and familiarity to its depictions are likely to be swept up in its gentle spell.

You can currently stream Raine Allen-Smith’s Rye Lane on Hulu.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.