William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has long endured as one of the written word’s greatest love stories, but what’s often forgotten among the “star-crossed lovers” and the dumb rage of familial feuds is just how nutty hormone-addled teenagers can be. It was true in the 16th century when The Bard committed its story to paper — based on a number of earlier tales — and then the stage; it was true when Franco Zeffirelli made his 1968 film, and when Baz Luhrmann updated it in 1996; and it’s certainly true in 2021.
For the latest — and, given the ways teenagers interact these days, wholly inevitable — adaptation, filmmaker Carey Williams hasn’t so much reinvented the story as re-approached it through the blinding glare of social media, with both clever and stultifying results. Williams’ “R#J” joins a growing cadre of “screen films,” this one bolstered by the producing and technological talents of Timur Bekmambetov and Igor Tsay’s Screenlife platform, which aims to build the best screen-set films in a market beset by them.
The screen elements of “R#J,” a film told almost entirely from the perspective of its characters’ social media accounts, deliver a story that feels true to Williams’ desire to immerse his audience in the world of his young lovers. “It’s Romeo and Juliet, but on Instagram” might sound both navel-gazing and eye-crossing, but Williams and the technology he utilizes have, if nothing else, the right energy to tell a contemporary love story.
Other attempts to freshen up the material — including a backstory that explains the feud between the Capulets and Montagues with all manner of convoluted details, plus some last-act twists that will leave Shakespearean scholars writhing in dismay — aren’t up to the same task. “R#J” certainly looks new, but flashy graphics can’t detract from the problems that lurk inside its structure and its script, written by Williams with Rickie Castaneda and Oleksii Sobolev. Still, the film’s first half exhibits a strong-enough handle on the material that some mistakes feel slightly more forgivable. Slightly.
“R#J” kicks off with the usual opening monologue, announcing that where “we lay our scene” will be largely confined to social media postings that include a screen version of Instagram that captures the look and feel of the photo-based app. Williams finds the space to show fraying edges: As young Romeo (Camaron Engels) poses for a series of happy shots to share with his many followers, the camera still lingers on his face between snaps to show a very real person underneath all the gloss. He, like all the best Romeos before him, is just a horny teenage boy who is about to have his world upended by something close to love.
Other introductions are also vibrant and funny: Romeo’s best pals Benvolio (RJ Cyler) and Mercutio (an electric Siddiq Saunderson) appear via a FaceTime call, while the alluring Rosaline is the kind of gal prone to posting nothing but thirst traps for the masses. Romeo snaps and scrolls, cues up music, taps out texts, waits for responses that never come, and, like many his age, lives his life both inside of and for his phone. Williams understands the giddy flow of social media: The first peek at the feud that centers the film has the Montagues and Capulets coming to blows via Instagram Live video, with a sudden flush of alerts that take over Romeo’s phone.
Juliet (Francesca Noel) is in her own social-media bubble, crafting art that speaks to the pain of her mother’s recent death and (somehow?) avoiding years’ worth of information as to why her family is locked in a battle with the Montagues. Brought together at a flashy Day of the Dead party held by the Capulets and gate-crashed by the Montagues, Romeo and Juliet woo each other through DM-fueled flirting (this works) and a short-shrift in-person meeting that is meant to fuel their ardor for weeks to come (delivered via a series of IG videos and photos, which does not work).
As the romance blossoms across time, space, and iPhone screens, the narrative gymnastics meant to turn a classic story into a modern one become harder to follow. Engels and Noel have the energy and chemistry, but “R#J” loses sight of its best elements as the complications pile up. Anyone who doesn’t understand what a “finsta” is will be lost during a major reveal, and Williams’ use of real online publications to deliver background information (including IndieWire!) often feels like a prop. (Would Vulture readers really be interested in reading about a hyper-local family feud?)
The film’s fast energy starts to falter in its final act, as Williams and his always-game cast limp through increasingly awkward plot turns while trying to maintain the more clever conceits that kicked off the action. Romeo and Juliet remain crazy teens until the last, however, though a retrofitted finale abandons the wild recklessness that has always marked this tale, a bold choice that rankles. Meant to further differentiate this take on the classic, it’s unnecessary; “R#J” has its own unique elements, many of them worth smashing that like button for.
“R#J” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.