How Rom-Com Rye Lane pays homage to South London
AAbout half a decade ago, a new idea for a romantic comedy was born out of a WhatsApp conversation between two screenwriters, Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia.
“Following what we were talking about,” one wrote, “how about a modern day When Harry Met Sallybut located today in London?
“You read my mind,” replied the other. “Cute dates at chicken shops.”
rye lanethe vibrant, slice-of-life romantic comedy that emerged from the conversation — and which arrives on Hulu on Friday — has its fair share of chickens.
In the movie – which evokes the 1995 film before sunrise, following its main characters as they stroll and just chat, growing closer as they bond after bad breakups – Dom (David Jonsson) remembers renting Morley’s, a beloved southern fried chicken restaurant from London, as a big birthday date gesture for his ex-girlfriend, Gia (Karene Peter). As a cute nod to their first date, when the two met up at Morley’s late at night, he set the table with candles, roses, goblets of wine and Gia was not impressed. But Yas (Vivian Oparah), who Dom tells this story to, loves the idea.
“It’s literally my dream date,” Yas tells Dom in the present day. “In fact, if I had a restaurant, I would call it Nuggets by Candlelight.” Later, she puts her number in her phone as “Yas (candlelight nuggets)”.
Learn more: The 49 most anticipated films of 2023
While Bryon and Melia invented the genre and the setting, it was director Raine Allen-Miller who brought Morley’s to the table. That is to say, it was his idea to do rye lane a love letter to south London – and to the boroughs of Brixton and Peckham, in particular (the film was originally set in north London). When Allen-Miller was 12, she moved from Manchester to South London. She grew up on a housing estate in Brixton, and one of the first things she did was go to Brixton Market, a bustling street market featured in the film, with her grandmother. Although much of Brixton is historically Afro-Caribbean, the area has begun to gentrify in recent years.
“To be able to go into a store and buy a very specific afro comb, and go and buy a Jamaican patty, and get plantain, and also go and get a flat white with oat milk is just an unusual and interesting thing,” Allen- Miller tells TIME, talking about the mountains of Jamaica, where she visits family. “Like sourdough bread, then hard bread.” (Hard dough bread is a dense, slightly sweet Jamaican staple.)
Inside Rye Lane Market, Dom (David Jonsson) votes for a pair of shoes that Yas (Vivian Oparah) tries on.
Chris Harris — 20th Century Studios
London’s cultural jostling is a compelling base for a film, but it’s not necessarily a positive thing, says Allen-Miller. “Gentrification is a difficult conversation.” Allen-Miller and the Writers Quote Spike Lee’s do the right thing as inspiration: It’s a snapshot of a specific place—Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn—at a specific point in time—1989, when the neighborhood is about to change.
“The key was to capture it NOWsays Allen-Miller. “It was about saying, ‘I’m going to represent a place that I know very well and a place that deserves to be represented properly.’ Not just in a gritty way where it’s all about crime and sadness, but in a way that feels real and positive, it’s a Black British experience.
rye lane captures its titular rue on a good day. The director knows that South London, like any place, isn’t perfect. But – with pops of color, wide lenses and her “accidentally art-driven” style – she makes the setting messy but beautiful. Small details add texture: At Rye Lane Market, a cowboy in a sequined blue outfit crosses the path of Yas and Dom. At Brixton Market, romantic comedy royalty Colin Firth makes an appearance, serving spicy pork burritos cheekily named Love Guac’tually. Outside a house party, a woman in a Bridget Jones rabbit costume smokes a cigarette.
Allen-Miller had no intention of making a rom-com — she never actually saw herself directing a movie she hadn’t written — but fell for the humor and simplicity of the script. “It’s almost the opposite of the classic formula,” she says: it takes a story that’s fun and joyful, infuses it with a strong sense of place and makes it romantic.
“We were really interested in what a romantic comedy would look like in a London that we actually recognized,” says Melia, who also lived in Brixton. “As much as we love those big glossy romantic comedies that fulfill dreams, they might as well be science fiction as far as we’re concerned.”
The London that writers know and love is populated by people who look like their friends. It means slang, and a lot of it.
At Rye Lane Market, Dom tells Yas that he is an accountant. “So is this what you always wanted to do,” Yas asks, “or do you have thwarted ambition burning in your belly?” “You know, you’re very…” Dom replies. “Peng? Yas interrupts. Other London vernaculars include: ‘safe’ (good, cool), ‘prang out’ (worry, panic) and ‘peas’ (lots of money).
Yas (Vivian Oparah) and Dom (David Jonsson) wander the busy streets of Peckham.
Chris Harris—Century Studios
The film highlights two local cinemas: Brixton’s Ritzy – where Allen-Miller went with her father growing up, and from which Melia lived five minutes away in her early twenties – and Peckhamplex, on Rye Lane itself. The production hosted community screenings at both theaters.
“Seeing him at Peckhamplex was an extra magic touch,” says Bryon. “Because we saw the people who really understood this slang and were like, ‘Wait what?! There have been little moments where it’s almost like someone is talking about your code. Somebody knows.
These writers know firsthand just how important those lines are: Melia is surrounded by actors in her family, and Bryon is an actor himself. “I understood the importance of creating really nuanced, interesting and diverse black characters,” he says. Because when we started writing this movie, I certainly didn’t see those roles come to mind.
The film opens and ends with art exhibits: Yas and Dom’s mutual friend, Nathan (Simon Manyonda), is a photographer. In fact, his exposure is the reason they’re in the same place at the same time. And Yas’ ex, Jules (Malcolm Atobrah), while arguably the worst, is also a talented sculptor. It was intentional: the creators wanted to represent working black artists on screen.
rye lane is, as Allen-Miller puts it, “a silly, wandering, tangible joy”. It’s like telling a story to a friend: elevated, colorful, but grounded in reality. And at its core, it celebrates the quirks, colors and magic of a place.
“I want all the wonderful American viewers – when they come to London – yes, do your Big Ben, do your Tower Bridge and all that, but get off at Rye Lane,” Bryon says. “Don’t make afternoon tea. Get rid of that. Go to Morley’s on Rye Lane, get six wings and fries. Grab a double chicken burger and thank us later.
More must-reads from TIME