This film was screened as a part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
From Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet to 2000's Romeo Must Die, there are dozens of interpretations of William Shakespeare's 16th-century tragedy in cinema. From animated features to loosely based interpretations like West Side Story, the narrative of the star-crossed lovers from warring families is not unfamiliar. However, in his modern retelling, Carey Williams' R#J is unlike anything seen before in cinema.
When the film first opens, the camera pans to what appears to be a picturesque beach in Verona. However, the audience soon realizes that instead of landscape, this is the background of a cell phone screen. R#J then introduces Romeo (Camaron Engels), a seemingly happy-go-lucky young man with bright brown skin. Though we see glimpses of his face through his Instagram feed, his personality is unveiled through his DMs, Spotify playlists, and likes. His world expands when we finally see him on-screen, this time through a FaceTime video between himself and his best friends Benvolio (RJ Cyler) and Mercutio (Siddiq Saunderson).
Across the city, Juliet (Francesca Noel) showcases her emotions and personality through her art on her social media accounts. Like everyone else, she is aware that her family is in a tense feud with the Montagues, but no one really seems to know why. However, she crosses paths with Romeo when he spots her artwork online.
The star crossed lovers fall for each other because of Juliet's art. The pair become increasingly enamored with each other through a series of flirty DMs and messages. An eventual meeting at a Day of the Dead party solidifies their electric chemistry.
Williams hit the nail on the head when it came to casting his film. Noel and Engels are magnetic, and veteran actor Russell Hornsbory's Captain Prince is especially majestic. The costuming and stunning cinematography also offers a glittering, vibrant and modern Verona. However, in confining his story on social media platforms, text messages, and FaceTime calls, the filmmaker stifles Shakespeare's story, the setting, and his actors.
Texting and social media pop-ups are certainly not foreign in film. Series like You and movies like Eighth Grade have used them successfully. However, forcing the audience to remain in the confines of screens was frustrating and took away much of the movie's magic and scope.
Moreover, despite R#J's modern spin on Shakespeare, Williams chose to keep his dialogue in Shakespearian English. It was almost a jarring contrast to the likes, GIFs, and emojis that the viewer watches bounce across the screen. When we did see the actors' faces and hear them speak, it took a moment to reacclimate to the thick prose and flowery language.
Most of R#J feels like it exists at two different times. As we leap from long monologues to instances of cyberbullying and police brutality online, it often feels like a dizzyingly whirlwind. Much of which only makes sense because most of the audience will at least know the beats of the infamous Shapeksperean tragedy.
As the film comes barreling toward the well-known climax, Williams quickly shifts gears offering a different alternative for the two desperate lovers. However, this won't leave the audience satisfied.
It's a bold choice to infuse new ideas and new perspectives into a timeless tale. However, had Williams chosen to go thoroughly modern, with 21st-century dialogue, or at the very least allow his film to exist outside of the confines of screens, perhaps we would have had a very different movie.
In the end, R#J never quite delivers a refreshing and bold take on Romeo and Juliet, the ideas are there, but it never quite comes together.
R#J premiered Jan. 30, 2021, at the Sundance Film Festival.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide