The Michigan Daily loves to watch and talk about films at the cutting edge of storytelling, and there is no place better to do so than the Sundance Film Festival. After a two-year in person hiatus, writers and editors for the Film Beat have trudged through the snow on planes, trains and automobiles to arrive at Park City, Utah. Our coverage will include the premiers of dramas, romances, documentaries and everything in between. Welcome to our discussion on films made with Oscar winners and first-time filmmakers alike.
Romantic comedies usually end happily for both characters and viewers. But when the credits rolled after Raine Allen Miller’s (“Jerk”) “Rye Lane,” I felt sad.
The movie should have been happy. Every scene following Yas (Vivian Oparah, “Then You Run”) and Dom (David Jonsson, “Industry”) is splattered with “fun.” The two first interact through a bathroom stall door after the camera pans over stalls lit with different colors and containing vastly different people — someone throws up in one, three young women take selfies against the brightly colored door in another. Dom is crying over pictures of his ex-girlfriend with her new boyfriend in a stall when Yas walks in.
The film takes place in south London, but Miller puts Yas and Dom in a world clearly parallel to — and perhaps more pleasant than — our own. It is a world where no color is faded — where a woman pulls a bunch of balloons through a doorway and one floats behind her for the entertainment of the characters. The use of a wide angle lens encompasses as much of their world as possible and leaves the edges blurry.
Yas and Dom have both recently been broken up with. Within the striking world of the film, they invent their own fantasy. When they tell their respective breakup stories, we dive into those scenes. As present-day Dom and Yas react to their past selves, we do too.
The movie world is beautiful and fleshed out. The world itself doesn’t feel thin — if anything, it is too sturdy. It is a beautiful creation leaving no clear or desirable escape.
Flashbacks and reactions like those in the breakup sequences are a highlight of the film’s humor. Sometimes these flashbacks are honest. We watch Dom from the past cry in a theater alone. But we also see lies: past Dom breaks through his own door after finding out his girlfriend cheated on him. This never happened.
I felt a similar sadness at the end of this objectively happy film to the sadness I feel when listening to a song in which the singer describes something — a particular love, a particular joy — that I want but don’t have. Yas and Dom provoked an emptier sadness because they didn’t have it either.
When the two confront Dom’s ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, pretending to be romantically involved, they tell an entirely false story in which a full bar chants their names and “encore” while they sing 20 songs at karaoke night. This never happened, but we watch it play out, and we watch Dom and Yas get swept up in their own fantasy, chanting “encore” to each other in the restaurant where they sit.
They cry over each other a day after meeting; they clearly want to belong in Miller’s world — the world of hilarity, bubbles and blurry edges; the world of romcom — but in reality, that connection between them is mostly aspiration. The karaoke is not their only romanticized lie; their whole connection feels invented out of the heartbroken sadness in both of their lives. This sadness undercuts the joyful cinematography throughout the film. At times, it lends itself to a feeling of authenticity. At others, there is only a sense that they are grasping at straws for happiness and connection that isn’t there.
Oparah and Jonsson were fun to watch, and their performances led me to sympathize with Yas and Dom individually. Their personal stories — Yas wants to be a costume designer and Dom has been forced to move in with his excessively doting parents post-breakup — are compelling and gave me something to hope for, even as I was unsure of their relationship together. But the chemistry between them was lacking to the point where I initially thought I had misread the film’s description and that they were destined for friendship.
They might have made good friends, too, but their dialogue, while often funny and occasionally approaching greatness, is equally often basic and does little to create a connection between them, romantic or otherwise. The film’s emotion and humor came from the acting, reactions and expertly-timed editing. The dialogue plays into these elements at times, but offers little on its own.
While not exactly bad for each other, Yas and Dom feel like a random pairing. Maybe they taught each other that people can change. Maybe they showed each other that if you really care about someone, you can make reality a little more fantastical with a Big Romantic Gesture. But these themes only feel revelatory when a film and its characters discuss them in a new, thought-provoking way. The dialogue shot down most chances of that, turning the message generic.
In a simultaneously pessimistic and forgiving interpretation of the film, that could be the point: Life is not as romantic as we think. Unlike films, it is not so motivated by anything in particular and is instead a bit mundane and plotless at times. In reality, strangers rarely form instantaneous connections; going from stilted and awkward conversations to meaningful ones takes time.
When a spark — chemistry and giddy happiness — like that between the invented Yas and Dom at the karaoke bar does exist, maybe it is partly a fantasy, but one just close enough to the truth that we believe it. But if the real Yas and Dom felt that way, they didn’t let the audience know. And conveying those feelings to the viewer is part of a movie’s job. I wished this film had made me sad because it so strongly showed me something I wanted. Instead, I was left feeling second-hand emptiness.
To Miller’s credit, I also felt like I had learned for the first time what colors are.
Senior Arts Editor Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.