Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Director Carey Williams (“Emergency”) makes his feature-length debut at Sundance this year with “R#J,” a bold reimagining of one of the most well-known love stories of all time, told entirely through social media. Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet,” like many of his other plays, has a long and storied history of adaptations. Williams’s take on it uses Instagram, iMessage and Facebook to tell this story in an innovative way, switching from one character’s phone to another, with the audience tuning in to Instagram Lives and FaceTimes. 

The film feels simultaneously invasive — we see Romeo slide into Juliet’s DMs before they actually meet — and a little bit too familiar, as we are already spending ample time in our daily lives staring at exactly the kinds of screens replicated in the film. 

The most striking aspect of this film is, of course, the form it uses to tell the story. The form is both limiting, in that we cannot see personal, intimate moments between characters when there is no phone in sight, as well as creatively freeing because the film is able to introduce new elements of the characters. The filmmakers make the bold decision, for example, to have Romeo be a ‘dark-mode’ kind of person, while Juliet is a ‘light-mode’ type, giving the phone either a dark background or white background, respectively. 

This story invites us to make judgments about the characters based on something many viewers are already experts on: social media habits. Because of the very nature of social media, we are instantly able to place the characters into their online archetypes: Juliet, with her alt art account and a profile picture of her black Doc Martens with two differently colored shoelaces, and Romeo with his artfully curated soft-boy streetwear fashion feed. 

This film takes the classic school assignment of “modernizing” an English class staple, using fake social media to its extreme. This is every fake celebrity Facebook page or imagined feed of a fictional character fully realized, with both the budget and the creative and artistic talent required to do so. Because of its roots outside of traditional filmmaking, it feels cheesy and strained at times, but it manages to adequately achieve its goal of a coherent story told exclusively through social media. 

The format takes some getting used to, and sometimes it is still shocking to see certain events played out on screen. Juliet’s very public suicide and Mercutio being murdered on Instagram live seem shocking until you realize that these events merely represent a fantastical mirror of exactly what our world is like now. 

We see real violence, unedited and raw, straight from strangers’ phone cameras to our own devices. Seeing it in an actual film is upsetting, especially because the reason it is so impactful is that it’s familiar. Romeo, played by Black actor Camaron Engels (“American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules”), watches Mercutio (Siddiq Saunderson, “Messiah”), also played by a Black man, die in real-time on FaceTime. The country watched George Floyd die at the hands of the police in a video shot on a cell phone, in much the same way “R#J” presents its violence. 

Aside from its novel format, the film also breaks new ground by having an almost entirely POC cast. The Montagues are played by Black actors and actresses, and the Capulets are played by Latinx talent. 

“Up to this point the status quo has just been white people, blonde and blue-eyed,” Juliet actress Francesca Noel (“Selah and the Spades”) said in the post-screening Q&A session. “It’s revolutionary, but it’s also just the way the world is.” [display:39279]

Other members of the cast concurred. “As a person who does love Shakespeare, I think that Shakespeare is a beautiful poet, a beautiful artist, a beautiful author,” said self-proclaimed Shakespeare nerd Engels. “I think a lot of people shy away from (Shakespeare’s works) … especially as a Black youth.” Perhaps Saunderson, who played Mercutio, said it best: “It needed to be flipped on its head, it needed a new life, with some new color.”

Carey Williams thought of this film as a “mashup” of modern and Shakespearean language, which was perhaps the most impressive part of the film, although it, too, was a bit confusing at first. “I knew early on that I wanted to preserve the original text, but I wanted to put that into modern day,” said Williams. 

Essentially, the characters use 21st-century slang in their texts and posts, but almost all spoken language is more or less the original Shakespeare. In this way, “R#J” carries on the long tradition of updating Shakespearean literature for the modern times. It manages to incorporate the beauty of Shakespeare’s original lines while also including current vernacular in a way that shows the incredible perseverance of Shakespeare’s storytelling. 

In addition, music is an absolutely integral part of this movie. “One thing I thought about early on was that this format was going to need music to carry it,” said Williams. “It’s going to need that soundtrack to pull it through.” 

Juliet listens to Clairo and FKA twigs; Romeo listens to Snoop Dogg. The music helps emphasize the fact that the characters are really just teenagers, something other adaptations sometimes forget. One telling example is when Juliet rebels against her father and posts a photo of her with Romeo. Her father calls her, and she ignores the call, instead turning up her music. “I was really focused on finding this hormonal, messy, tumultuous teenager who was really vulnerable and falling in love for the first time,” said Noel.

Despite its valiant effort to make a Shakespeare adaptation that is fresh, current and relevant, the film seems like it will be dated once the next Instagram or iOS update arrives. The interfaces of these apps we use everyday change, and since we use them every day, we get used to the graphics and aesthetics of these apps very quickly. 

However, this also means that graphics that fall behind the curve — which could take only a few months — instantly feel dated and out of touch. The point of the movie is that it is exactly in the current moment, and while it captures that moment as best as it can with its format, it is also going to be practically unintelligible to teens of the next generation. 

The staying power of this movie can really only be determined with time — either its graphics will age it into oblivion fairly quickly, or its classic Shakespearean backbone and the innovativeness of its form will allow it to remain relevant in the cultural psyche.

Daily Arts Writer Emilia Ferrante can be reached at emiliajf@umich.edu.