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‘Rosaline’ Review: Meet Romeo’s Ex-Girlfriend (Yes, She’s Mad)

In Karen Maine's wily comedy, Kaitlyn Dever shines as Romeo's big love pre-Juliet, who has some star-crossed crap of her own to sort out.

(L-R): Isabela Merced as Juliet and Kaitlyn Dever as Rosaline in 20th Century Studios' Rosaline, exclusively on Hulu. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios.  All Rights Reserved.

“Rosaline”

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Rosaline is mentioned 10 times in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” her name invoked at moments when it seems opportune to remind Romeo that, indeed, his heart did love before he set eyes on charming Juliet, and yes, his ability to drop face-first into ill-fated love affairs is kind of his thing. And while Rosaline lurks at the margins of Shakespeare’s play, she doesn’t get a single line to speak, instead reduced to jilted has-been and cautionary tale. But Romeo’s ex has not been forgotten in the intervening centuries, and her side of the story has been dramatized plenty, including the 1966 film “Juliet in Mantua,” the play “After Juliet,” the musical “& Juliet,” and the book and its adapted TV series “Still Star-Crossed” (in which she was played by rising star Lashana Lynch).

In Karen Maine’s “Rosaline,” adapted from Rebecca Serle’s novel “When You Were Mine” by reigning kings of YA romance Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter (“The Spectacular Now,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns”), Rosaline is rendered ambitious, funny, scheming, intelligent, conniving, and very much worth rooting for. Played by Kaitlyn Dever, this Rosaline is very mad indeed (why shouldn’t she be?), but the always-winning actress helps guide a prickly footnote into delightful territory. One part coming-of-age tale, one part literary reconsideration, and all totally fun, “Rosaline” proves there’s still plenty to mine from the classic canon, with lively twists.

Taking place “(A really long time ago),” as a cheeky opening credit tells us, Maine’s version of Verona feels relatively small-scale and contained (even a number of sequences on the ocean feel very green-screened and there’s a “Men in Tights” feel to much of it), all the better for Rosaline’s big dramas and petty pains to take center stage. She’s been meeting Romeo in secret — important reminder: Rosaline is also a Capulet, so her cavorting with a damned Montague is just as bad as when Juliet (Isabela Merced) does it later on — even though she’s not entirely sold on the dude.

Romeo (a wonderfully doofy Kyle Allen) is earnest, but he’s also a bit of a ham, spewing romantic lines to Rosaline that we all know he’ll reuse (and soon!) with her own cousin, Juliet, who will prove to be a bit more receptive to them. Hell, he even woos Rosaline on her own balcony, while her own nurse (a lively Minnie Driver) pretends not to hear and her pushy dad (a well-cast Bradley Whitford) is always inches from barreling in.

(L-R): Kyle Allen as Romeo and Isabela Merced as Juliet in 20th Century Studios' Rosaline, exclusively on Hulu. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“Rosaline”

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Rosaline, however, is different from Juliet in many ways: she has career ambitions for one, dreaming about someday being a cartographer. Traditional-minded Romeo doesn’t seem so interested in Rosaline’s desires outside of him, so when he jilts her for Juliet, Rosaline could just drop the whole thing. Alas, her pride has been wounded, and she can’t get over the feeling that, even if Romeo isn’t precisely perfect for her, at least she choose him of her own accord. She can’t say the same for the rest of her life. For example: yet another potential husband her father shoves on her, convinced his daughter is veering dangerously close to be too old to get married (olden times!) and eager to get her the hell out of his manor.

As Rosaline is preoccupied with attempting to break up Romeo and Juliet, papa Capulet introduces yet another would-be suitor, new arrival Dario (Sean Teale), who really doesn’t want to make off the spiky young woman he’s forced to lightly romance. (You can guess where this is going.) Maine, who previously directed the delightful and charged coming-of-age comedy “Yes, God, Yes,” isn’t afraid of getting deep, dark, and weird with her female characters. And so while some of where the film goes is indeed predictable, other elements are not, like how long Rosaline resists having what seems to be an inevitable maturation.

(L-R): Sean Teale as Dario and Kaitlyn Dever as Rosaline in 20th Century Studios' Rosaline, exclusively on Hulu. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“Rosaline”

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Weber and Neustadter’s script freshens up Serle’s far more dramatic book, with zippy results. Part of that involves reorienting some of the mythos — like how Paris (a very funny Spencer Stevenson) came into the picture as a parentally approved suitor for Juliet, or why Rosaline wasn’t present for many key moments in Shakespeare’s original play, including the masquerade where Romeo and Juliet first meet — while leaning into other parts of it. “Rosaline” won’t really sing for anyone not familiar with the play (listen, surely these people exist somewhere), but for anyone whose been fed the “romance” of Romeo and Juliet over and over again, it pops.

While some audiences might bristle at the film’s wackier elements — Rosaline’s fear of fish; Nico Hiraga as the world’s worst courier, hilariously named “Steve” — Maine, Weber, and Neustadter’s obvious joy in getting silly with Shakespeare is admirable. Why not reconsider the world’s greatest love story? Why not have fun with it? Why not take a jilted, angry woman and turn her into a relatable heroine? Turns out, even the oldest tales still have fresh, feisty blood in them.

Grade: B

“Rosaline” will start streaming on Hulu on Friday, October 14.

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