The Movie Waffler SXSW 2021 Review - R#J | The Movie Waffler

SXSW 2021 Review - R#J

r#j review
A "screen life" reworking of the Shakespeare tale.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Carey Williams

Starring: Camaron Engels, Francesca Noel, David Zayas, María Gabriela de Faría, Diego Tinoco, RJ Cyler

There’s something perversely funny about this audacious Digital Age rendition of Shakespeare. R#J is not really a comedy – it’s plainly a contemporary adaptation of 'Romeo and Juliet', retold via ‘screenlife’, the form of storytelling in which everything is driven via the use of computer screens (think Unfriended, Searching, etc). But seeing the meme language of Gen Z applied to Britain’s favourite “high culture” staple can be quite rib-tickling.

r#j review

Everyone and their dog knows the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers and their warring families, the Montagues and Capulets, and Carey Williams’s take doesn’t mess with the fundamentals. Instead, it refreshes the perspective with a similar approach to Baz Luhrmann. The Australian auteur brought the play to the modern day (well, the '90s) by repurposing swords and noblemen with guns and gangsters in a facsimile of Miami. Williams, on the other hand, centres his story on a hip, diverse group of college kids who spend a lot of time on Instagram. While most of the action takes place in the DMs, we are Facetime’d into a Capulet-hosted costume party that serves as the masked ball, wherein we spend time with a hilarious, coke-sniffing Mercutio (Siddiq Saunderson).

Sometimes, R#J can be genuinely endearing, its spirit energised by two likeable youngsters in the titular roles, Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel, respectively. And it’s also well observed with cool pop culture references (the Junji Ito mobile wallpaper!) and accurate social media usage, including precise text message exchanges that don’t evidence a “fellow kids” understanding of Gen Z language. But it also really needs to be serious and seeing iconic moments and characters manifest as hashtags like #riptybalt provide unintentional laughs.

r#j review

The comment sections are interesting because there are small, cutting moments of social commentary around police brutality and economic privilege as we watch the Montagues and Capulets throw hands and trade barbs. They also highlight the insouciance instilled in people on the Internet who don't have to worry about consequences behind the keyboard. Randomers casually call for the death of Capulets and nonchalantly respond to the broadcasted murder of Mercutio. There’s something to be said about highlighting the negative impacts of social media but there are too many horrible real-life examples that reveal the lack of empathy on the web. An offbeat film like this probably won’t wake people up about cyberbullying.

Imagining Romeo and Juliet – or @roamrome and @jewelz, per their social tags– respond to each other or their families with Jay-Z gifs or scroll past their subscriptions to the Criterion Channel sounds more like an awkward joke but it’s exactly what we have here. Romeo didn’t click the Pinterest and Letterboxd icons, but my mind wandered there anyway, especially in the frequent moments where it seemed like the director had run out of creative visual ways to advance his film, copping out by using pre-recorded clips sent over SMS (such as when they get married).

r#j review

Though it has its moments, it just doesn’t come altogether without sacrificing the tension of the play’s tactile moments with back-and-forth texting that can’t generate the same suspense. The term screenlife was coined by producer Timur Bekmambetov, the impresario behind all the associated films in the genre including this one. R#J confirms to me one thing I assumed before clicking play – screenlife should be strictly reserved for horrors and thrillers, high-concept premises that can exploit the perils of delayed communication in today’s world. I hope this sentiment is shared by the producer; I can promise he would get more “likes” making an Unfriended 3 than pursuing a #macbeth.

R#J plays online at the SXSW Film Festival from March 16th to 21st.

2021 movie reviews