With an instrumental version of “All by Myself” playing in the background, a newly dumped Rosaline (Kaitlyn Dever, “Booksmart”), donning historical garments, flops onto her bed. This continues for a few seconds before the backing accompaniment disappears, and a literal violinist playing “All by Myself” is dragged out from Rosaline’s bedroom by her nurse (Minnie Driver, “Cinderella”).
“Rosaline” is a teen comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This cheeky beginning scene, among other quirks, sets the movie apart from other Shakespeare retellings such as “Ophelia” and “Romeo + Juliet.”
Based on the young adult novel “When You Were Mine” by Rebecca Serle, “Rosaline” is a loose retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The story is set in an ambiguous time period when the two houses speak like they’re from the 21st century but dress how the average person in the 21st century might imagine one dressed in the 1500s. It is from the perspective of Rosaline, who was in a relationship with Romeo (Kyle Allen, “Space Oddity”) before he decided to date Juliet (Isabela Merced, “Sweet Girl”). Rosaline plots to get back together with Romeo with the help of Dario (Sean Teale, “Spanish Pigeon”), the man who her father, Adrian Capulet (Bradley Whitford, “The Handmaid’s Tale”), wants her to marry.
“Rosaline” tries to infuse comedy into the dialogue from the first scene. Romeo climbs Rosaline’s balcony and recites lines viewers recognize from Act I, Scene V of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Rosaline interrupts and asks why Romeo is using early modern English. This type of self-aware line sets “Rosaline” apart from other “Romeo and Juliet” adaptations in its use of modern-day language while also introducing the irreverent personality of the main character, ultimately attempting at humor. Many scenes that are supposed to amuse the audience fall flat, such as when Dario teases Rosaline about being afraid of the ocean, but it’s not all that hilarious to see Rosaline reluctantly getting in the boat. However, the use of exposition is more interesting than if the screenwriter had opted for character narration.
The soundtrack has Gen Z written all over it. When Rosaline is smitten with Romeo — the night before he meets Juliet — “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” by Natalie Cole plays in the background. Cole’s song appears in two Disney feel-good movies that are very Gen Z: “The Parent Trap” and “A Cinderella Story,” both of which were an essential part of Gen Z childhoods. When Romeo is at the Capulet ball looking around for Rosaline, a pop rendition of “Dancing On My Own” by Anna of the North plays in the background. Taylor Swift’s “Paper Rings” even plays in the credits. The music knows how to reach its target audience.
Given the press release posters plastered with “Meet Romeo’s Ex” and the mention of a revenge plot in the movie trailer, it was disappointing that revenge was underexplored. In fact, the revenge plot isn’t really a revenge plot. Rosaline doesn’t have darker or particularly surprising character motivations. The screenplay is basically a mirror of “Romeo and Juliet” narrated by Rosaline, as opposed to a film that can truly do justice to exploring Rosaline’s character. Seeing as the movie is from Rosaline’s perspective, a greater divergence in storyline from “Romeo and Juliet” would have allowed for not only a more interesting development of this new character but also greater unpredictability that could have kept the audience engaged throughout the film’s duration.
The revenge plot also didn’t make sense to begin with. Rosaline’s motives are unclear. She gaslights Juliet into thinking that Juliet should leave Romeo, pointing out that he used similar methods to charm Rosaline, but then continues to write him letters in hopes that she can win him back. This would have made sense if Rosaline was more sinister than viewers originally thought — if she intentionally tried to break up Romeo and Juliet solely because she didn’t want them to be happy, rather than because she thought she was entitled to Romeo’s love — but it’s later revealed that she didn’t realize the hypocrisy of criticizing Romeo’s actions to Juliet’s face while simultaneously pining for him.
While the movie tries to chalk Rosaline’s inability to see her own hypocrisy up to her naivete and use this as an opportunity for character development, Rosaline is old enough to realize how hypocritical she is being. Given her alleged strength as a character, Romeo’s shallow nature should have been obvious to her. She is portrayed in the beginning as an ambitious person who wants a man who will love her and take her dreams seriously. However, Rosaline doesn’t seem to care that Romeo acts as if his relationship with her never existed; instead, she continues longing for him. It doesn’t make sense that she continues to chase after someone who no longer wants her, especially because Romeo uses the same pickup lines on Juliet, making it seem that he never truly cared for Rosaline. But somehow, it’s not until Dario points this out that she really begins to reflect on her relationship with Romeo.
It’s even more hypocritical that she states her disinterest in being married towards the beginning of the film, but after repeatedly rejecting Dario, who her father wants her to marry, she ends up falling for him anyway.
At best, “Rosaline” reads like a 2010s dystopian novel featuring a stubborn heroine who needs a secondary character — a love interest — to help guide her to victory. Still, Dever brings out all the aspects of Rosaline’s personality. While Rosaline is headstrong and leads the way, Dever also shows Rosaline’s vulnerability. After Juliet is shown as being kind in her interactions with others, the guilt Rosaline feels for deceiving Juliet is written all over Dever’s face. We see more evidence of Dever’s skills when she chats with Dario about what it means to be in a relationship; it’s clear through Rosaline’s body language that there is a paradigm shift — she’s finally willing to accept her love for Dario. That being said, it was a shame that the script was unable to offer more depth to back Dever’s performance.
Although this adaptation leaves a lot to be desired, “Rosaline” puts a fun twist on “Romeo and Juliet” that is more palatable for teens today. Compared to the myriad teen romance shows and movies put out by streaming services, at the very least, “Rosaline” should be applauded for rewriting an old story from a new perspective.
Daily Arts Contributor Kristen Su can be reached at email@example.com.