SXSW Film Review: R#J

New Romeo and Juliet may divide like Capulets and Montagues

If Romeo and Juliet were penned today, it’s certain that elements of the story would take place online and a few integral plot devices would be misconstrued by the ease of communication. Viewed almost entirely through the confines of a smartphone, the latest adaptation, R#J, fits this modern day mold exactly.

Director Carey Williams handles it more carefully than you’d think, at least in the beginning. In this rendition, Romeo Montague (Camaron Engels) finds Juliet Capulet (Francesca Noel) through a hashtag, and their meet-cute happens via Instagram DMs. Melding live action Shakespearean dialogue with present day social media speak makes the former more palatable for non-bardolaters and captures the youthful giddiness of the pair’s romance. The characters’ digital presences become their means of characterization. (Of course Juliet has the Criterion Channel app on her phone. She’s a cinephile!)

The Montague v. Capulet war is broadcast via IG Live, but the violence weighs heavier when the characters view it from their phones. Tybalt (Diego Tinoco) brutally stabs Mercutio (Siddiq Saunderson) over FaceTime with Romeo, and the characters scroll through hordes of news posts of the rival families’ attacks. There’s room for a thoughtful discussion of how we are expected to both witness and process trauma in a virtual environment, but R#J brushes past it, largely because this new issue doesn’t exist in its source material.

The first few acts move slowly, offering time for adjustment to its format and introduction to its world, but soon R#J’s commitment to its gimmick becomes detrimental. Ken Burns-esque cuts of text messages overlaid with the audible reactions of the characters grow tired. The boldly lit live action shots and an impressive performance from Siddiq Saunderson leave you to wonder what the film could be without the confines of social media. Only so much of a relationship can be told through gifs before it begins to feel trite.

Diverting from the original, a plot twist reveals the star-crossed lovers’ live streamed deaths to be a ruse they planned in order to unite their families. While Romeo and Juliet succeeded, the film dissolves into its ‘social media is a performance’ conclusion without expanding upon it. Story alteration proved inevitable.

Some may think R#J cheapens Shakespeare’s original, but a miscommunication that dramatic is impractical when Juliet has Romeo’s phone number. Today’s tragedies have to be much more subtle.


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