'R#J' Review: 'Romeo & Juliet' Retold Across Phone Screens [Sundance 2021]

Using the same Screenlife technology that powered films like 2018's innovative Searching, director Carey Williams reimagines William Shakespeare's classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet through phone screens and social media accounts in his debut feature R#J. That approach might sound obnoxious, but for the most part, it works surprisingly well. Just as Baz Luhrmann did in 1996 with his stylish Romeo + Juliet, Williams aims to keep the story fresh for the next generation, and despite using Instagram and FaceTime as the key methods of communication between his characters, he's able to tap into the raw romance at the core of this star-crossed lovers' tale.

Before the movie started, Romeo Montague (Camaron Engels), slid into the sexy Rosaline's DMs, and the two started chatting. But she's ghosted him, and when we first meet him, he's despondent. His mood quickly improves when his friends Mercutio (Siddiq Saunderson) and Benvolio (RJ Cyler) score an invite to an opulent costume party at the Capulet family's sprawling Los Angeles estate. Despite there being a bloody feud between the Montagues and Capulets, Romeo heads into enemy territory because he thinks he might run into Rosaline. But his friends have an ulterior motive: to rob the Capulet estate and strike another blow in the decades-long clash between clans. During the break-in, Romeo spots a piece of artwork signed with "#J," and discovers the artist is the gorgeous Juliet (Francesca Noel). With Rosaline now a distant memory, he starts a digital flirtation with Juliet, and the two meet up and spend a dreamy night hanging out, thus beginning a whirlwind love story buoyed through texts, videos, gifs, and shared playlists.

Williams and co-writers Rickie Castaneda and Oleskii Sobolev make the interesting choice of having the characters speak primarily in Shakespearean dialogue when they're addressing each other aloud, but text and type in modern vernacular, which should make the phone portions more immersive to the Gen Z crowd. And the phone conceit largely works: brawls between Montagues and Capulets are live-streamed, the characters' Instagram profiles give us insight into how they want the world to see them, and Williams is even able to throw in a brief comment on pile-on culture. (Late in the movie, Juliet is slut-shamed online after Tybalt's death for posting a chaste picture of her and Romeo that supposedly kicks off a cycle that lead to his murder.)

In many ways, this movie is exactly what you imagine when you hear it's taken the Screenlife approach. But there is one significant change to the story that will get viewers talking, and without giving away what Williams has up his sleeve, I found myself equally irritated by how that decision impacts the overall narrative and impressed by the audacity to attempt such an alteration in the first place. It's also tough to shake the feeling that there's no inherent reason for the story to be told in this way aside from "to make it more relevant for the kids," and some logic-driven viewers may find themselves wondering why the camera is on during certain moments.

The movie works mainly because of the magnetism and sincerity of its cast, who are giving it their all throughout. Engels and Noel have excellent chemistry, and their world is populated with charismatic, dynamic supporting players, best represented by Saunderson's maximalist take on Mercutio. If this is what it takes to introduce a new generation to a classic story, so be it.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10