Rye Lane may be Raine Allen-Miller's feature directorial debut, but the director tells Total Film that she didn't always envision making a rom-com as her first movie when we meet her in a London hotel room. "I think it would have been the last type of film I'd want to make. If someone said to me, 'Your first film will be a rom-com', I'd be depressed," she laughs. "Rom-com is the cheesiest genre ever normally, but I read [the script] and was like, 'Oh, God, this is actually quite funny,' and felt like I could add my flavor to it."
Rye Lane certainly has a flavor all its own – with the bulk of the action taking place over one tumultuous day, the movie follows Yas (Vivian Oparah) and Dom (Industry's David Jonsson), two newly single 20-somethings who are thrown together after a chance encounter and embark on a chaotic journey around Peckham and Brixton in south London as they grapple with lost love and new feelings.
Like her director, the film's female lead Oparah wasn't particularly enthusiastic about romantic comedies, either. "I'm not a huge rom-com fan. I've seen the classics, but it isn't the genre that I naturally gravitated towards, just because maybe I didn't feel like it was for me. I've seen the great films, but when you don't see yourself in a place, you're just like, 'Okay, I'm gonna go to look at aliens,'" she says, referring to her breakout role in Doctor Who spin-off, Class. "But I was excited at the prospect of this quirky little Peckham rom-com."
She continues: "I was excited to play a character who was just so unapologetically messy. It was cathartic as a woman to just be like, 'You can be a mess, and you can be fun, and you can be scared.' I think you always want to play characters that have a lot of dimensions. But I was like, 'Me? In a rom-com?'. [But] Raine is a world builder and I wanted to be a part of any world that she was building, so it was just a no-brainer."
Her co-star Jonsson adds: "You want to do new things as an actor, and I was like, I've not done anything like that before, probably a good shout, and Raine Allen-Miller is honestly just an absolute genius. Then, meeting Viv, [I thought] this should be cool. It might not work, but it might be cool."
The pair did chemistry reads with other actors before they ended up in a room together, but they clicked immediately. "I got in the room with David and I was like, 'Damn it, he's so good,'" Oparah laughs. "I was like, 'He knows Dom,' and I loved playing Yas because I could just throw loads of curveballs and he absolutely was just knocking back." Jonsson agrees: "When we had that chemistry that was kind of undeniable and our director was sat, like, curled in a ball, she was so happy. It was instant from that point."
While the movie is ostensibly a love story between its two leads, it's also a love letter to an area of London that isn't often portrayed on screen. British rom-coms of the '90s and '00s tended to favor wealthier backdrops like the grand Georgian terraces of Notting Hill and tourist-friendly central London. A previous version of the film's script, written by screenwriters Nathan Byron and Tom Melia before Allen-Miller came on board, saw the movie set in Camden, a borough in north London, but she was adamant that had to change.
"I said, 'We need to change it to south London.' That was a really big thing for me, I wouldn't have done it if I couldn't have changed it to south London," the director, who's lived south of the Thames since adolescence, explains. "It's such an important place for me. I also felt like the simplicity of the script, placed in south London, would have worked really well as an opportunity to add Brixton and Peckham as a third character."
Watching the film, it's obvious that south London is not only a character within the story, but it's also been treated with love and care behind the camera. "One of the most important things was that we supported the local businesses and represented it in a way that feels really real," Allen-Miller explains, mindful of the gentrification that has been impacting the area for several decades now. "It wasn't about going to the swanky restaurant that's only been there for two years. It was about showing it exactly as it is and being as authentic as possible. I wasn't trying to hide from the fact that there's probably an oat milk flat white shop around the corner – that exists, and that's there, and I also like a flat white every now and again. It was just a case of trying to find places that felt real."
Rye Lane is in UK cinemas now and arrives in the US on Hulu on March 31. For more viewing inspiration, check out our picks of the best upcoming movies on the horizon in 2023 and beyond.