From the opening shots of “Rye Lane,” on Hulu March 31, British director Raine Allen-Miller makes clear that her feature debut is not another generic rom-com.
The film begins by quickly scanning overhead views of public bathroom stalls all around the world and the many activities that take place within them, from doing drugs to changing a baby’s diaper. Finally the camera settles on a young man sitting and crying in a London loo, feeling sorry for himself after his ex-girlfriend dumped him for his best friend from childhood.
“I wanted the opening to be bold, be bonkers, and make people go ‘What?!?’,” Allen-Miller said in a recent video interview with the Globe. “It was important to set up the visual language early on because it’s quite different.”
Dom (David Jonsson) is interrupted by a stranger outside the door who asks if he’s all right. Moments later, he meets that stranger, Yas (Vivian Oparah), at an art exhibit of work by a mutual friend — showing massive images of extreme close-ups of lips and teeth.
For the rest of the day, we mostly follow Dom and Yas as they walk around Rye Lane, alternately hiding and revealing their true selves as they flirt. The script was originally set in Camden, but Allen-Miller insisted on moving it to this Peckham neighborhood in South London, a Black community, she said.
As the potential lovers stroll through Rye Lane, the glowing color palette and quirky characters give the neighborhood a magical shimmer. “It was important that it looked vibrant and beautiful,” Allen-Miller said, especially because “gentrification is already happening. I wanted to capture this moment in time.”
The area usually shows up on screen as “violent or gritty,” Jonsson noted in a separate video interview with the Globe, but “there’s also a million-pound house and a cowboy moonwalking and great coffee shops and people full of laughter.”
With a modesty that makes him sound like the self-deprecating Dom, he added, “I’ve hoped in my tiny, nonexistent career to make work that shines a light on an experience you know is true but that you haven’t seen onscreen before.”
Allen-Miller was drawn to the script not just because it was funny but because it was “unapologetically happy,” she said, and the movie retains that flavor — Yas says she could only date someone who waves at people on boats, and the film shares her impulsive and joyous streak.
The director also peppers the film with wildly imaginative cutaways that echo the tone of the opening shots in the bathroom stalls. “I love going all out with things,” Allen-Miller said. “My friends have joked that I don’t know how to rein it in.”
So when Dom recounts for Yas the moment he knew he was being cuckolded, the twosome enter his imagination and watch a reenactment of the moment he saw his best friend’s naughty bit in the background of a screen shot from a FaceTime conversation with his girlfriend. (There’s also a funny flashback to the bathroom of their school days to explain why he would recognize that most private part.)
And when Yas rescues Dom from a humiliation at the hands of his ex and supposed friend, she concocts a story about meeting Dom while they both performed an impromptu karaoke number to deliriously adoring, chanting fans at a club — a scene we see in glorious, exaggerated detail.
“Those scenes were really fun to execute, but I also want everything to be grounded in the truth,” Allen-Miller said. “When you tell someone a story, you always dramatize it. If you say, ‘Oh, I told this person off and really said what I thought,’ you make it sound like ‘I was in a gown and really articulate and on a stage, and I was amazing.’”
Jonsson took the role because, he said, “I don’t think I’m romantic or comedic,” so it seemed like both a challenge and an opportunity. He was struck by Allen-Miller’s approach, he added: “She’s a complete visionary. She planned everything carefully but then always had the attitude of ‘Let’s try something, what’s the worst that could happen?’”
Here’s another way “Rye Lane” breaks the rom-com mold. While Allen-Miller says she laughed repeatedly reading the original script by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia, she pushed not only to change the location during rewrites but also to strengthen Yas’s character. “My ambition was to have a female character who was the one who did the grand gesture, not a girl who listens to the funny guy’s hilarious jokes that you get in most rom-coms,” she said.
Oparah, whose exuberant performance fuels the fun, praised the film in a press roundtable for “disrupting the conventions” with that shift. “You don’t often see stories with Black leads where the woman gets to be the joy,” she said. “It was so fun being the knight in shining armor.”
Jonsson noted that Oparah’s performance brings that energy to life: “She’s just undeniable, and her delivery was knocking me back constantly.”
The director’s formula-busting sensibility even extends beyond the end of the movie. She says that while Jonsson presumed the couple would have a happily-ever-after, “Vivian and I would giggle and say, ‘Nah, they probably break up after three months.’”
That doesn’t mean that Dom and Yas would regret their time together. “We’ve all met someone where you have the butterflies but it just doesn’t work out in the long run,” Allen-Miller said. “That’s not necessarily a sad thing. And the beauty of a film is that you can leave not knowing some things. So who knows what really happens with them?”