SXSW Online 2021 Review: “R#J”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 91 minutes
Director: Carey Williams
Writers: Rickie Castaneda, Oleksii Sobolev, Carey Williams
Stars: Camaron Engels, Francesca Noel, Russell Hornsby, Jacob Ming-Trent

By Valerie Kalfrin

What light on yonder smartphone breaks? Director Carey Williams brings Shakespeare’s classic star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet into the digital age with “R#J,” a feature that retells their forbidden romance through texts, FaceTime, and other social media touches.

Shakespeare’s tale of a young couple who fall in love in spite of their warring families has endured modern updates before, from 1961’s musical “West Side Story” to director Baz Luhrmann’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” in 1996. “R#J,” which played at the Sundance Film Festival and at SXSW Online 2021, has an intriguing concept, but its execution ultimately fails to prove as engaging as the doomed sweethearts have on the page for more than seven centuries.

It’s natural to imagine Romeo and Juliet as millennials, and Williams (TV’s “The Process”), who co-wrote the script with Rickie Castaneda and Oleksii Sobolev, shows some wit in transporting the play’s characters to the modern world, in this case, Verona, California. Rosalind, the young woman with whom Romeo (Camaron Engels, “Black-ish”) is infatuated at first, for instance, is an Instagram celeb in bikinis with the screen name “dreamgrrl” who barely knows he exists, ignoring little bubbles of messages he sends her way. Juliet (Francesca Noel, “Selah and the Spades”) confides in an older sister, Nancy (María Gabriela de Faría, “The Moodys”), instead of her nurse. Lawrence (Jacob Ming-Trent, TV’s “Watchmen”) is a spiritual healer who helps the couple, and instead of a prince speaking the laws of the land, the film has Captain Prince (Russell Hornsby, “The Hate U Give”), a cop who tries to quell the street brawls between the Montagues and Capulets.

Francesca Noel as Juliet in “R#J,” a social media update of Shakespeare’s doomed romance / Courtesy of RottenTomatoes.com

Once again, the young lovers first connect through a party that Juliet’s family organizes, here a Day of the Dead affair with Juliet and others in elaborate makeup. Romeo and his friends Benvolio (RJ Cyler, “Black Lightning”) and Mercutio (Siddiq Saunderson, TV’s “Wu-Tang: An American Saga”) sneak inside, but while his friends cause mischief, Romeo checks out some artwork, signed “#J.” He looks up the artist on Instagram and soon chats and flirts with Juliet, neither the wiser that their families can’t stand each other.

“R#J” takes some inspiration from Luhrmann’s box office smash, with Juliet’s tattooed cousin Tybalt (Diego Tinoco, TV’s “On My Block”) in particular reminiscent of John Leguizamo’s hot-headed swagger. But just as we never truly know someone’s lifestyle or personality by what they post online, “R#J” holds audiences at a remove by depicting Romeo and Juliet’s relationship largely through texts and video chats. The film has a handful of offline moments where the two pose for photos and videos or kiss and cuddle, and Engels and Noel make for an attractive pair. But it’s as if they’re holding the audience at arm’s length, and some viewers might not quite understand why these two adore each other.

The dialogue also constantly switches from iambic pentameter to everyday speech, which interrupts the immersive experience. On one hand, it’s endearing when Romeo greets Juliet on FaceTime by saying, “It is my lady! Oh, it is my love.” But it’s also disconcerting after scenes where the two text lines such as, “So, you, like, hang out in gardens or something?”

Williams and his team deserve credit for an innovative experiment that at times works well. When Juliet shares a photo of her with Romeo, the online hate piles on in a way that’s sadly relatable. But the filmmakers also take significant liberties with the source material, and the narrative in the third act becomes muddled. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but too much tinkering removes what makes Romeo and Juliet’s story a tragedy for the ages.

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