‘R#J’ Film Review: Shakespeare for Social Media? LOL, OK

Sundance 2021: Carey Williams’ ambitious attempt to adapt star-crossed lovers to Instagram feels awkward and instantly dated

Last Updated: January 30, 2021 @ 9:17 PM

If every generation gets the “Romeo and Juliet” it deserves, well, Gen Z may need to wait a little longer for theirs. It probably won’t be Sundance entry “R#J,” which is so intently of-the-moment it almost feels dated before the credits roll.

For his first feature, director Carey Williams uses Screenlife — in which the entire story unfolds on devices — to retell Shakespeare’s timeless tale, with a few notable twists. This time, Romeo and Juliet fall in love while DMing each other emojis and gifs from “The Office.” Purists need not apply, of course, but that’s OK: the Bard can stand up to interpretations from any era. Then again, where’s the dignity in Dwight Schrute? And can we really consider nearly-nude selfies (So. Many. Selfies.) a worthy upgrade?

What “R#J” does have going for it is a diverse cast that reflects a wider range of adolescence than most adaptations. But some teen experiences are eternal: Romeo (Camaron Engels) and Juliet (Francesca Noel), and their friends Merc (Siddiq Saunderson), Benvo (RJ Cyler), and Nancy (María Gabriela de Faría), mostly want to flirt, party, and provoke their parents. This is particularly easy for R&J, given the blood feud between their families.

As you may have heard, the Montagues and the Capulets don’t care much for each other. And their animosity has been fueled online, as followers continually goad them to expand their conflicts.

There is an intriguing idea here, in the way social media has replaced traditional family structures, support, and striations. But cowriters Williams, Rickie Castaneda, and Oleksii Sobolev have set themselves a needlessly difficult task in basing their story on an immortal masterpiece rather than simply starting from scratch. They alternate between Shakespeare’s words and their own, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with twinning modern and classic lines. But why bother, if it means toggling from truly beautiful language to DMs like “Jules! WTF r u doing?”

There are moments when Williams’ approach almost works, particularly when the stronger actors in the supporting cast are onscreen. Saunderson (“Wu-Tang: An American Saga”) is excellent as a coke-snorting, troublemaking Mercutio, as is Russell Hornsby as Captain Prince. But their ease with Shakespearean language also winds up calling more attention to the younger cast members’ difficulty adjusting to it. (The film’s credits include two social media commentators, and one dialogue coach.)

Newcomers Engels (“Clickbait”) and Noel (“Selah and the Spades”) are appealing, but they aren’t set up to sell these iconic roles. Much of Noel’s performance, in particular, consists of scrolling through her feed or reacting wordlessly to DMs.

Williams tells the story via FaceTime, Twitter, Spotify, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. (What, no Clubhouse?) But why? Yes, there are good reasons to explore modern modes of connection and disconnection, yet we live with mundane alerts and gifs and notifications all day long. There’s little that is entertaining or edifying in watching fictional characters, not to mention beloved ones, text “What r u up to?” to each other.

Ironically, if unsurprisingly, the movie does best when it transcends these formats. A wide-ranging soundtrack overseen by Andy Ross adds some necessary layering. And characters made up in striking fashion for a Day of the Dead party, or facing off in formless fury for their followers, hint at depths that might have been mined further.

“R#J” is the latest in producer Timur Bekmambetov’s Screenlife film series, which broke through with 2015’s horror flick “Unfriended.” The truth is, this movie — which is not only about love, of course, but violence and death — would have been better served by a more forgiving genre than Shakespearean Adaptation, which seems to have been chosen somewhat at random.

Twenty-five years ago, Baz Luhrmann’s MTV-influenced “Romeo + Juliet” taught young audiences that Shakespeare’s themes and talent are truly eternal. But it’s tough to get invested in a romance between two people more interested in likes than love.