Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. When it comes to young, tragic love, no one does it quite like William Shakespeare. But that doesn’t mean that we have not seen adaptation after adaptation of the story of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet throughout the centuries since Shakespeare first penned this play. I won’t deny it, for a Shakespeare lover like me, R#J is like catnip. I love a director’s interpretation of The Bard’s iconic stories. From the histories to the tragedies to the comedies, there can never be enough.
And, in a time of social media, it seems inevitable that we would find our two star-crossed lovers in this modern iteration. My first impression of R#J was that it reminded me a lot of the Scandinavian show Skam. A television series told through social media, text messages, and vignettes into young characters’ lives. Some might begrudge this method of storytelling, and while there are moments when the method hinders R#J, there are also moments where this adaptation really shines.
R#J doesn’t shy away from the darkest elements of Romeo and Juliet, instead, it places a new twist on the tale. In a story told in messages, posts, and framed videos, you see what the camera wants you to see. Sometimes this is a blurry shot of a fight on the streets, sometimes it’s the frenzied conversation between two arguing lovers. Director Carey Williams very cleverly uses the frame of a phone camera to his advantage in this case. Even in the moments where characters jump in Instagram Live and we see an audience tuning in with their own opinions, the experience is immersive. Your eye is on the subject in the frame, but also your fellow audience members speaking to you.
In this adaptation, Romeo (Camaron Engles) is a young Black man in Southern California, returning to his father after living with his mother post-divorce. When he stumbles upon Juliet (Francesca Noel), it isn’t because of the party that he crashes. It’s through her artwork. The two flirt and talk over Instagram long before knowing the others’ identity. In this case, social media is offered as a thoughtful vehicle for our young lovers to connect.
There are moments that are necessarily dramatic for the sake of the original story, but Williams’ use of social media enhances the story every time. Often times real stories today do play out over the multiple platforms of communication on the internet. It’s up to the user to piece together a story or to wait until a digestible news blast comes through in your notifications.
R#J ends in a twist, despite a faithfulness to the Shakespeare of it all — full with dramatic deaths, a legitimate branding, and iambic pentameter — and the story is better for it. These are not children from the 16th century, some things must be changed for the story to be plausible. I won’t spoil the details, but R#J is an enjoyable and youthful retelling of the classic story. I could easily see this played in an English classroom, though given the speed of technology, it might already be a bit dated.
This film review was based on the premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2021. Photo by Charles Murphy | Courtesy of Sundance Institute