Like so many great romantic comedies, “Rye Lane” opens with a meet-cute.
In the stalls of a unisex bathroom at an exhibition opening, Dom (David Jonsson) is stalking his ex-girlfriend on his phone and weeping. Yas (Vivian Oparah), in a nearby stall, hears his tears and asks if he’s OK. This brief exchange through the cubicle walls begins an unexpectedly long, and eventful, day for the Londoners.
The film’s writers, Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia, felt “Rye Lane” needed to somehow open in an art gallery, the pair said in a recent interview. Bryon said that Black people — like Yas and Dom — are rarely shown in the art world on film and TV.
Opening the movie “in that space, with this group of cool, beautiful-looking Black people, that to me feels so special,” he said.
Dom (Jonsson) and Yas (Oparah), foreground, meet at an art exhibition, a setting in which the writers felt it was important to see the characters.Credit…Searchlight Pictures
This opening is one of many ways the creators of “Rye Lane,” which opens in theaters in Britain on Friday and will come to Hulu in the United States on March 31, aim to tell a love story set in South London that feels true to their experiences, and their city.
“The story is really simple. It’s two people walking around, talking about their breakups,” said Raine Allen-Miller, the film’s director, in an interview. “They meet at the wrong time, but also the perfect time.”
Dom, who is heartbroken after his girlfriend left him for his best friend, is timid and openly emotional, which Jonsson particularly admires. “I love his vulnerability. I think that there’s something quite gorgeous about a young Black man being straight-up heartbroken,” Jonsson said in an interview. “I’ve been heartbroken, but would I have allowed myself to go into a restroom and cry my eyes out? Probably not.”
In contrast, Yas — who has also recently come out of a relationship, for reasons that unfold as the film does — is energetic, and prefers to offer a more curated version of herself.
The pair spend the day wandering around Peckham and Brixton, two lively and multicultural South London neighborhoods a short bus ride from each other. “Rye Lane” takes its title from a main street in Peckham, and these two neighborhoods become central characters in the film.
Dom and Yas stumble across scenarios and tableaus that celebrate the area’s quirkiness: a man dressed in mismatched clothing, including large animal jewelry, hands out social justice fliers; a woman in a bunny costume, reminiscent of Bridget Jones, smokes a cigarette outside a large house; at one point, a person in a cowboy outfit skips past.
Bryon and Melia said they initially envisioned the two characters strolling through Camden, a popular part of north London, also known for its exuberance. But when they sent Allen-Miller the script, she said she would only join the team if the film (her directorial debut) was set in South London. She wanted to “almost write a love letter” to the area, she said, having moved there at 12 to live with her father and grandmother. “One of my fondest memories is walking around Brixton Market with my grandma and getting Jamaican spices,” she said.
Melia had previously lived in Brixton, and felt the location still “matched what we were going for.” The script’s first draft “was a bit more like ‘Before Sunrise,’ insofar as it could almost be one shot,” he said. “By the time Raine read it, it had developed a bit further away from that anyway.”
The finished filmis shot in a saturated color palette, and in parts with a fisheye camera lens. The dreamy, joyful atmosphere is in stark contrast with how Peckham and Brixton were once depicted in the mainstream British press. In 2007, The Guardian reported that “for more than a generation,” Peckham had “been linked with drugs, gangs and violent murders.”
Recently, these areas in South London have also experienced significant gentrification, with house prices rising and wealthier people moving in, inadvertently hurting longstanding locals. In the upcoming book “All The Houses I’ve Ever Lived In,” the journalist Kieran Yates details how, while living in Peckham in 2017, she witnessed “the sheer speed at which wealthy property developers saw an opportunity to move in.” She later moved to Brixton, where an “influx of restaurants, farmer’s markets, galleries, cafes and bars has led to a spike in rent,” she wrote.
In making “Rye Lane,” Allen-Miller said she was “trying to make a film that is a funny, happy day in South London,” before the effects of gentrification made the area completely unrecognizable. “I just wanted to put it on a plinth, and capture the bits of it that are beautiful and special,” she added.
This celebration is helped by cameos from well-known figures in Britain: the comedians Munya Chawawa and Michael Dapaah, the “It’s a Sin” actor Omari Douglas and the reality TV star Fredrik Ferrier. But one actor will be familiar to all viewers: Serving burritos in a shop named Love Guac’tually is the godfather of rom-coms himself, Colin Firth.
Early in production, having a Firth cameo felt like a pipe dream to the writers. But the film’s executive producer, Sophie Meyer, had worked with the actor on the 2007 British comedy “St. Trinian’s,” and sent him a text. “We were like, ‘Yeah, good luck’,” Melia said. But Firth agreed, and was “such a good sport,” Byron said. “It is also such a lovely nod to rom-coms for us.”
A small service-industry role like that “would normally maybe be the only person of color in a different film,” Melia said. Here, a white Oscar winner is playing it.
Whatever the viewer’s knowledge of London and its various neighborhoods, the creators of “Rye Lane” hope the film will offer a fresh (and fun) perspective on the city.
“The more traditional rom-coms show Londoners by the London Eye or Tower Bridge. But, let’s be honest, most Londoners are not having a pint by Tower Bridge because it will cost you 15 pounds,” Bryon said. “We wanted the movie and the location to feel personal to the audience who know it, and also to introduce Rye Lane to those coming to London.”