In Pretty Woman, Vivian wanted the fairytale. When Edward climbed the fire escape to rescue her, and she rescued him right back, everyone was happy with the happy ending.
In 1990, when the film was released, romcoms created some pretty unrealistic expectations for falling (and staying) in love.
They were often about bringing together two people from different backgrounds: Goldie Hawn’s heiress and Kurt Russell’s carpenter in Overboard; Jennifer Lopez’s hotel maid and Ralph Fiennes’ politician in Maid In Manhattan; and of course, Julia Roberts’ sex worker to Richard Gere’s wealthy businessman, to name just a few.
This was peak romcom era. After the huge success of When Harry Met Sally, the genre hit its heyday in the 1990s and 2000s; from Sleepless In Seattle, My Best Friend’s Wedding and How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, to British numbers such as Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually – a big romcom meant box office bucks.
But as perceptions of fairytale endings started to change, and expectations grew for more diverse stories on screen, the cinematic landscape shifted to superheroes and franchises, and romcoms fell out of fashion.
After a lull, we are experiencing something of a renaissance as the genre embraces the realities of modern romance.
Some are cheesier and more unlikely than ever (see Jennifer Lopez‘s superstar singer getting together with Owen Wilson’s teacher in Marry Me), but there are plenty moving away from the old tropes, such as The Big Sick, Bros, and Crazy Rich Asians, and comedies about platonic love such as Bridesmaids, Girls Trip and Booksmart.
Rye Lane, the new debut feature from Raine Allen-Miller, is another one. Set in Peckham, south London, twenty-somethings Yas, a wannabe fashion designer, and Dom, an accountant, are both getting over break-ups, and the film follows them as they connect throughout the course of one eventful day. It’s a romcom, yes, but one about two average people and the everyday encounters that push them closer.
And it all starts in a public toilet.
“I find the word ‘romcom’ just so cheesy,” Allen-Miller tells Sky News. “I was kind of allergic to it from the very beginning. [This] was about trying to make a film that was romantic and funny, but not necessarily in that romcom world we kind of know.” Although, she concedes, “there are some great ones”.
Turning the romcom into critically acclaimed cinema – and channelling Peep Show
All genres of film should evolve, she says, but the romcom is particularly guilty of being formulaic. “It doesn’t really branch out to being, like, recognised or ‘critically acclaimed’ cinema. You don’t think of that when you think of a romcom, you think of something you just sort of enjoy.”
Allen-Miller is a new filmmaker looking to change that. Shot with wide-angle lenses that produce almost a fish-eye effect in some scenes, Rye Lane is dreamlike and cartoonish, but at the same time grounded very much in reality; a world filled with popping colours where the periphery is all part of the action, giving a sense of the hustle and bustle of an area that was once best known as the home of Del Boy.
“It was so important for me to represent it in a way that felt fresh and not doom and gloom,” she says. “This is about south London on a good day. It’s really important to make a point of that, that it’s a good day. It’s not always a good day, but this is about a good day. And that was my inspiration.”
Allen-Miller was also inspired by the greats such as Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, as well as one of her favourite British comedy shows. “The close-ups were definitely inspired by that… I have to big up Peep Show and say that was a massive reference.”
‘Richard Curtis is one of the GOATs’
While the pairing of Yas and Dom may follow one romcom cliche of pairing the quiet introvert with the confident, outgoing extrovert, Along Came Polly this isn’t; their chemistry is completely believable.
Vivian Oparah, who plays Yas, says she found her character weird but endearing. “We were hoping to do something kind of strange because the script was a little bit off-kilter,” she says. “The characters weren’t your typical romcom characters either; Yas disrupts all the conventions of a woman in romcoms.”
“As does Dom,” says David Jonsson, who plays him. “You know, he rides on the back of her moped.”
That doesn’t mean the actor isn’t a fan of something more formulaic; he describes British filmmaker Richard Curtis as “one of the GOATs” (greatest of all time). “I watch Love, Actually, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones, every Christmas. What I love about this film is it’s kind of taking that great romcom genre and disrupting and breaking it a little bit.”
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A nod from romcom royalty
For fans of the Curtis classics, there is even a cameo from a veteran of the genre (no spoilers here). “It was really important to get that in and I’m so happy he agreed to do it,” says Allen-Miller, who wrote to the star to pitch her idea. “I can’t speak for him, but the letter was sort of saying: ‘I’m making a romcom and it’s very different to the ones that you’re in and I kind of wanted to make a point of that in a sort of slightly cheeky way’. And he was on board.”
Both Londoners themselves, the film’s two main stars are pleased with the way it portrays this pocket of the city. “Sometimes there’s just beauty in the normalcy of everyday life, the mundane things in life,” says Oparah. It feels real, agrees Jonsson. “Like, that is the Nour Cash & Carry, that’s the barber’s shop; actual kids screaming in the street, unplanned. I think it’s like the truth of London.”
Rye Lane has received good reviews, from Peckham itself all the way to Hollywood – The Hollywood Reporter describes it as “colourfully clever and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny” but more importantly as a film “that manages to make an old story feel new”.
Writing for the Evening Standard, Peckham local Liz Hoggard calls it “a moment of pride” and hails seeing a film from south London that isn’t about gang violence, while The Telegraph’s film critic Robbie Collin praises it for nailing Peckham’s “clatter and bustle” and getting the area right – unlike Curtis’s Notting Hill.
Allen-Miller says that above everything, she hopes the film makes people happy. “I know that sounds really basic, but it’s a time where we kind of need that.
“I guess I’d also love people that grew up in south London or from similar backgrounds to me to also feel like I did them good and that I kind of represented their home. But that’s only a tiny percentage of the world. I think the rest of the world should feel happy and like they’ve learned something new, and that they’ve got lost in the cinema for a bit.”
Rye Lane is out in cinemas in the UK now