REVIEW: ‘R#J’ is an ambitious but failed attempt at modernizing Shakespeare’s classic love story

Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel appear in “R#J” by Carey Williams, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

This review contains spoilers.

Reimagined in Carey Williams’ Gen Z inspired “R#J” is the infamous age-old story of star-crossed lovers, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Set in the modern day, this rendition follows Romeo and Juliet as they fall in love entirely through social media and their smartphone screens. 

Straying from the original script, the characters use modern-day slang through text and social media but Shakespearean English in video calls/livestreams. Though a unique selling point at first, after about 15 minutes when social media’s gimmick wears off, the film is left constrained by these tropes.

The ingenuity of this film is undeniable. Even through phone screens, the shots were well-composed, utilizing dreamy production design and angelic back-lit lighting to give it a cinematic look. Despite being seen through a phone, the film has a rectangular aspect ratio similar to that of a regular 1.85:1 movie which also contributes to the cinematic feeling.

Performances by the cast carried the film through its dull moments. The cast was composed of Black and brown actors, bringing some much-needed diversity to the world of Shakespeare. 

Romeo (Camaron Engels) and Juliet (Francesca Noel) captures the hormone-possessed spirit of the young lovers with ease. However, the standout performance was held by Siddiq Saunderson who played Mercutio. Saunderson commanded every scene, playing Mercutio’s comedic intensity in an ostentatious, extravagant manner. Bringing such passion and life to every scene, his final duel with Tybalt was all the more tragic as the film was left with a tangible hole.

Though the character of Paris was omitted from the plot, his Instagram profile did make a cameo depicting him as an e-boy Soundcloud rapper.

Some moments are heartwarmingly familiar to young audiences who know what it’s like to establish a connection virtually. Creating a shared playlist, sending cheeky gifs and rephrasing the same risky text over and over echo the current methods of flirtation. However, the film lacked an understanding of the nuances of Gen Z on social media. There were little details such as texts ending with a period or Romeo using the video chat feature on Instagram to contact Tybalt that didn’t authentically replicate how social media is used by young people today.

Because of inaccuracies like these, the film becomes gimmicky, feeling like a high school society play. It is unintentionally funny, yet wants to be taken seriously. 

The primary issue with the film being restricted to the medium of social media is that it creates a lack of intimacy between characters. Couples do not film their most intimate moments and aside from some photoshoots and homemade videos that ultimately felt performative, this lack of intimacy lowered the stakes of the romance and kept audiences at arm’s length. These moments of true affection between the couple feel voyeuristic, as this personal moment was no longer theirs as all the viewers were intruding.

The new format also creates some complications regarding the original plot. In the play, the two lovers’ tragic fate is the result of a lack of communication and with the film taking place through a communication device, the narrative is changed.

The reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” with a diverse cast, familiar slang and social media opens it up to a broader audience. It overcomes the idea that Shakespeare is boring and out of date. However, the youthful audience “R#J” was made for may not connect with this aggressive appeal. 

Length: 1h 31m
Genre: Romance, Drama
Rating: N/A
Release Date: January 30, 2021
2.5/5 stars