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Being pressured to read a friend’s extensive text conversation with their vexatious significant other is one of the scourges of modern life. As it happens, that comprises much of what’s asked of the audience by R#J, the un-Googleable desktop film that adapts Romeo and Juliet for the Instagram age. (The press notes state that the title should be pronounced “Romeo and Juliet,” as opposed to, perhaps, “Romeo pounds Juliet.”)
Directed by Carey Williams as his feature debut, R#J is certainly the most beautiful of producer Timur Bekmambetov’s screen-based movies (Searching, Profile, Unfriended and Unfriended: Dark Web). And it’s the least claustrophobic-feeling of his run of desktop films, with social-media videos, artsy or picturesque L.A. locales and fluctuating aspect ratios breaking up the usual visual monotony of the subgenre. R#J‘s aesthetic centerpiece is a Day of the Dead-themed costume party where the titular lovers (Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel) first meet, unaware that they belong on opposite sides of a deadly, decades-long feud.
Romeo and Juliet — or rather, @roamrome and @jewelz — hardly ever meet IRL again, the rest of their relationship unfolding largely online. He’s enchanted with the (rather striking) art she makes; she’s horrified by the ongoing violence between the Montagues and Capulets. (Here, Romeo is Black and Juliet is Latina, but the race-bending is superficial and doesn’t add much texture to the script.) We hear the lovers’ grunts and laughter in response to each other’s DMs, those emotional cues somewhat diluting the antiseptic sensation of reading texts. But the result still means spending a lot of the run time perusing bland dialogue from barely sketched characters.
It’s hard to keep track of the plot’s machinations where the supporting characters are involved, and the script — and pacing — are further hampered by the film’s liberal borrowing from Shakespeare’s own dialogue, adding to the stilted feel of the production.
Occasionally, there’s some play with the original text, like when a buddy advises Romeo, “examine other beauties,” and another adds with a wink, “examine other booties.” And there are a few clever observations about how a mostly online romance between two young people from rival clans might play out in the 2020s. Fights are captured and posted on tea accounts. Romeo and Juliet making their relationship “Instagram official” is a big effing deal. They’re subject to a ton of online harassment, but the bulk of it is directed at her. Juliet finds the poison she takes through an influencer who calls himself a “healer.”
Overall, though, the hodgepodge of creative choices in R#J — including its moody soundtrack, slightly futuristic costumes and a dirty GIF AirDropped on partygoers’ phones — while plenty imaginative, don’t speak to one another and never quite cohere into a whole. A major fakeout — the film’s biggest deviation from Shakespeare’s plot — fails to make the proceedings any more emotionally engaging. Ultimately, it all feels less like a romance than a curiosity.
R#J‘s dramatic inertness does render, almost by default, the young lovers’ relationships with their family members the most interesting subplots. Some of the most resonant movies about the internet have mined the gap between our real selves and our online personae. We see some of that hesitation and calculation here, but mostly in the lovers’ familial ties, like when Romeo verbally curses his overbearing father but sends him a much more diplomatic message.
Perhaps Williams and his co-writers Rickie Castaneda and Oleksii Sobolev thought the most romantic thing about a 21st Romeo and Juliet would be that they communicate online with zero self-consciousness. But it also feels improbable that two young lovers would give so little thought to how to impress each other, and it further robs this adaptation of the frisson and suspense it so desperately needs.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production companies: Interface Films, Bazelevs
Cast: Camaron Engels, Francesca Noel, Siddiq Saunderson, Diego Tinoco
Director: Carey Williams
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Igor Tsay, John J. Kelly, Alex Sobolev, Anna Soboleva
Executive producers: Valery An, Oleg Petrov, Adam Sidman, Maria Zatulovskaya
Director of photography: Diego Madrigal
Production designer: Evelyn Ellias
Costume designer: Desi Aguilar
Editor: Lam Nguyen
Sound designer: Ugo Derouard
Composer René G. Boscio
Casting: Amanda Lenker Doyle, Chrissy Fiorilli-Ellington
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