R#J

Sundance 2021: R#J Review

Romeo slides into Juliet’s DMs in the über-contemporary R#J. Pronounced Romeo and Juliet proper, but abbrev’d into hashtable lingo for the cool kids, R#J is truly Shakespeare 2.0. This wildly original adaptation remixes the Bard’s classic play anew. Director Carey Williams makes a bold feature debut by translating Shakespeare’s voice to the age of memes and live feeds. This social media savvy Shakespeare is ingeniously accessible for today’s youths. It should double tap the hearts of Shakespeare-on-film fans.

Young audiences might not relate to Romeo’s rhyming pining in Shakespeare’s verse. However, his slick moves on the rebound are likely part of their own digital dabblings. Romeo (Camaron Engels) finds himself getting over his beloved Rozaline by falling down an Instagram rabbit hole. His eyes catch the wondrous beauty of an emo artist named Juliet (Francesca Noel). He “likes” her, showering her feed with hearts and affectionate comments. His homies Benvolio (RJ Cyler) and Mercutio (Siddiq Sanderson) goad him about puppy love. Razzing Romeo with ejaculating eggplant emojis in the group chat, they assume that Roz still holds Cupid’s arrow. They crash a ball and the rest, as they say, is history.

#Shakespeare

R#J is Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers and feuding families told entirely through Instagram stories, direct messages, live feeds, GIFs, and viral videos. Williams retains much of the original verse, which makes the film brilliantly accessible. Every good Shakespeare adaptation needs to speak the language of the current generation and R#J totally lands the lingo.

The conceit works surprisingly well as a propulsive narrative device. When Romeo carefully masters the art of the follow-back, Shakespeare’s tragedy speaks to its audience anew. The exchanges between Romeo and Juliet have a quick spark. Their hurried responses, coupled with some cautiously deleted and rewritten messages, display the Bard’s precision for language. Young people choose their words carefully in the age of text/emoji-based communication. But sometimes words aren’t right and R and J say it with a GIF. Cue everyone’s favourite Stanley-from-The-Office eye-roll reaction or a Shangela GIF. SpongeBob Squarepants speaks the language of love in R#J, saying far more in brightly-coloured animation than Romeo could utter in a flowery refrain. There’s as much of an art to well-timed meme as there is to the cadence of iambic pentameter, it seems.

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Many of Romeo and Juliet’s signature speeches remain, as do the soliloquies. R#J actually marks a rare case in which the soliloquies feel natural off-stage. Films often struggle with the Shakespearean device in which characters expound their thoughts like inner monologues. These moments can be dramatically inert or can break the suspension of disbelief in even the best adaptations. However, these introspective monologues in R#J speak directly to the behaviour of youths circa 2021. The confessional is more popular than ever thanks to Instagram stories and Facebook Live. Young people stream their souls daily, so Shakespearean verse doesn’t make these moments a stretch.

Two Households Divided

Social media also fuels the feud between the Montague and Capulet households. As characters recite their speeches, their diatribes go viral. Williams lets the onscreen graphics mirror live feed conversations as the mediated drama further divides the factions. Montagues and Capulets join in the online mob with passive aggressive likes, rage-fuelled posts, and all-caps SAUCY BOY comments. If there’s one oversight to R#J, it’s that Williams omits Twitter from the grab bag of platforms. No social media tool is as ideally catered to polarising parties and inspiring venomous toxic rage, but I digress.

The young actors also know how to work the tools at their disposal. Although Williams shot R#J on professional cameras, rather than smartphones, it retains the dimensions of personal devices. The actors rely on the limited framing, creating natural turns that adopt the necessary edge of performativity when the verse calls them to their Shakespearean duty. The film has notable standouts in the ensemble including Cyler and Sanderson as Romeo’s bros (their “Queen Mab” scene would totally be trending), while Diego Tinoco is a fiery Tybalt. Williams accentuates the division between the factions by marking the families by race. The Montagues are Black and the Capulets are Latino. On one hand, the choice makes R#J more reflective than it’s ever been for America (West Side Story was close, minus Natalie Wood) and speaks to the potent racial tensions that defined the past year.

Shakespeare’s Shelf Life

While there’s loads to admire in R#J, including a killer soundtrack that puts Baz Luhrman’s adaptation to shame, the film may have limited appeal. Anyone interested should see the film immediately before it dates itself. R#J is so of the moment that might not work in two years as tastes change and behaviours shift. (Just imagine how a Myspace R&J film from 2005 would play today.) As such, it’s more of an intriguing experiment in the Shakespeare cinematic universe than a vital addition. But even if it only lasts as long as an Instagram story, R#J displays the endless malleability of a timeless love story.  Or, as Shakespeare would say: 🤯.

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R#J premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

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