I don’t know if every generation deserves their own version of Romeo and Juliet, but they damn sure seem to keep getting them. In the case of Carey Williams’ inventive, wholly expected R#J, the film images if Shakespeare’s tragic love story were a product of the Gen Z era, with a passionate tale of doomed lovers told through Instagram stories, tweets, TikTok, and Facetime. It makes for a propulsive, melodramatic effort that is stymied only by the technology itself which does much as it does in real life, which is make it hard to find a genuine connection.
An unexpected entry in the Screenlife genre enthusiastically supported by producer Timur Bekmambetov (Unfriended, Searching), R#J is told almost entirely through the lens of social media apps. The dialogue lifts faithfully, for the most part, from Shakespeare’s text with the occasional modern reference and shorthand. It’s a flashy, energetic effort that captures the current “all eyes on me” mood: if you didn’t post it, did it really happen?
The story beats remains mostly the same, too. Cameron Engels plays Romeo, a Verona native who captures his life in a series of Instagram posts shared to his many friends, family, and followers. The Montague clan he’s a part of seem to have their own unique fan base, one in strict competition with the enemy Capulets. Described by his pals as “emo”, and for very good reason, Cameron longs for Rosaline, who keeps ghosting him. He texts, and she doesn’t respond, but she’s definitely online and keeping her followers happy. Time to get the hint.
It’s easy to get swept up in the frenzy of Internet screens, gifs, and emojis, but Williams is smart enough to give us a glimpse at Cameron on the other side of the screen. He is, for the most part, a normal teen. He loves to dance, to show off, and carries a love of vintage hip-hop, blasting a playlist of O.G.C. and Souls of Mischief like a true backpacker. His pals, the wild and mischievous Benvolio (RJ Cyler) and Mercutio (Siddiq Saunderson, an exhilerating revelation who leaps off the screen) convince him to attend a Capulet party to sneak a peek at Rosaline, but instead it’s a hashtag that catches his eye. A hashtag that leads him to the artsy Juliet (Francesca Noel), who has her own issues to deal with, namely trying to stay out of the feud her father (David Zayas) insists on keeping up with the Montagues. Her cousin, the fiery Tybault (Diego Tinoco) has keyboard gangsta written all over him.
That Romeo and Juliet’s courtship unfolds through text messages over a video screen feels of the moment because, let’s be honest, it’s how we meet people nowadays. Entire relationships are built from miles away, through clever DMs and flirty fleets. It’s when they meet face-to-face, a moment that should feel gigantic, that it falls apart. Told through a series of photos and Instagram posts, this blissful moment carries absolutely less weight, certainly not enough for the doomed couple to proclaim their love for one another soon after.
Williams isn’t particularly interested in exploring our social media culture or addiction to our devices. If anything, and this could be a statement in itself, he seems to be saying this is our normal way of life now and why pretend it isn’t? There is a certain amount of seduction to the instantaneous communication, and when everyone on your timeline starts a live video, signaling deadly trouble, there’s genuine anxiety in the moment. The problem is that Williams needs to concoct increasingly ridiculous reasons for keeping everyting online, and once you start thinking about the “why”, R#J starts to feel like a clunky technological experiment rather than a love story representative of the current age. Even Williams’ finale, an unnecessary twist that shirks real consequences, is as if he desperately wanted his film to get a “Like” when we were already willing to follow.