Source: https://www.rogerebert.com/festivals/sundance-2021-searchers-rj-first-date

Movie Review: R#J

R#J Is a Disappointing 2021 Approach to the Classic 1595 Tragedy

Film: R#J (Romeo and Juliet)

Director: Carey Williams

Category: NEXT

This film should be everything I want to see at Sundance. It’s in the NEXT category, it’s a retelling of my favorite classic Romeo and Juliet, it has a creative device for modernizing the story, yet it’s such a letdown. NEXT is a double-edged sword, it’s the category that allows for experimental filmmaking, but that doesn’t make all experimental filmmaking is good. Romeo and Juliet is a hard story to mess up, yet telling the story exclusively through apps and phone screens is more of a hindrance than a help.

This is a pretty straightforward telling of the story, everything proceeds as usual with the storyline. However, this film is obviously pulling on modern references, for example, Lin Manuel Miranda’s international theatrical smash hit, Hamilton. This is a wonderfully diverse cast of young Black and Latino actors. The two leads, Romeo (Camaron Engels, Malibu Rescue) and Juliet (newcomer Francesca Noel) do their best with the material as Shakespearean prose is a challenge to deliver. That said, the leads and the rest of the young cast members (with the exception of the older cast members) seem to struggle to combine modern slang and delivery with speech that was not originally meant to be whispered on Instagram Live. The gravitas that usually accompanies Shakespeare’s work is nowhere to be seen in this film, replaced with performances that are, overall, quite dull.

Considering that we’re a society that exists in the realm of social media and smartphones, the framing device of viewing the story through text message threads and switching between live streams and Facetime calls should be easy to view. It’s not. The film never makes the viewing experience comfortable or seamless for the audience, it’s clunky at best and outright distracting at its worst moments. The only thing that I can say makes the most amount of sense in this medium are Romeo and Juliet’s deaths. In the original telling (and I know that this story is a tragedy), it always seemed so melodramatic for Juliet to want to kill herself after the fight between Romeo and Tybalt. When viewed through the context of social media, this makes so much more sense. After the fight, R#J shows Juliet receiving not only mountains of online hate for loving Romeo, who killed her cousin, there’s also the online rumor mill that sends her spiraling because she has no idea what’s really going on and can’t get in touch with Romeo. A teenager trying to die by suicide after being cyberbullied for something she didn’t (directly) cause or take part in makes so much sense than a girl being overly sad over a guy she’s known for like two days.

That goodwill is immediately thrown away when the film decides instead of following the actual story of Romeo and Juliet, the ending is drastically changed for the worst. Instead of the back and forth suicide (Juliet pretends to die, Romeo actually dies, Juliet wakes up and sees Romeo dead and actually dies, too), the filmmakers decide to have the two survive and run away happily ever after. Look, I don’t want to yell, BUT THAT IS NOT THE POINT OF THIS STORY. Having them secretly fake their deaths to teach their families lessons and getting a happy ending is not the point of Shakespeare’s legendary tragedy. The point of this story is that when you’re too hasty with your actions and decisions everyone ends up worse off. It’s supposed to be a tragedy and this change is such a bad choice.

R#J is an absolute disappointment. The cast tried their best, the framing device of social media is flat out distracting and hard to follow, and then any points the film earns they immediately throw away to change the ending and defeat the purpose of the story. If you want a good modern Romeo and Juliet, go watch the 1996 version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. If you want to see a great use of social media as a framing device, go watch Eugene Kotlyarenko’s Spree with Joe Keery (from Sundance 2020) on Hulu. Just don’t waste your time being disappointed with R#J.

Review Score: 2/5

Where Can You Watch: There are no details available yet about where the film will be released.

Bonus Content: Check out the Q&A with director Carey Williams and cast members Francesca Noel, Camaron Engels, Diego Tinoco, and Siddiq Saunderson on the Sundance Film Festival Youtube channel. Watch here

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