A Plague on Both Your Collab Houses: Carey Williams’ No Fear Shakespeare
Carey Williams’ R#J is a sleek, inspired, refreshingly cheesy Gen-Z spin on Romeo & Juliet, told entirely via smartphone screens and social media — think Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching meets Shakespeare by way of Hamilton’s hip revisionist history (writer/director Williams and his primary cast are all POCs). R#J is one of the most audacious—and successfully executed—adaptations of the revered tragedy since Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, complete with a flamboyant Mercutio and surreal(ist) flair. Williams’ film possesses more conceptual than emotional depth, but perhaps that’s its genius: it deftly reshapes a classic for today’s digital culture.
Williams superimposes 21st-century communication channels on anachronistic language: the day is hot, the capels are online, and if they meet, they shall not ‘scape a laggy Instagram live brawl. Romeo insta-stalks Rosaline, but she ghosts him; his boys Merc and Benvolio goad him via group chat into coming to a Capulet party. When Romeo stumbles upon Juliet’s art Instagram, he slides into her DMs… and the star-crossed lovers entangle, sharing gifs and Spotify playlists. If this sounds corny, it is—but in a good way: the director is in on the joke, spinning self-aware comedy around archaic turns of phrase.
The most noteworthy parts of R#J are where Williams takes creative license, and luckily, this is the lion’s share of the film … including a clever twist that adds an additional layer of modern-day poignancy. Williams and his editor Lam T Nguyen are laudably efficient storytellers; they compress time by scanning text conversations in close-up, revealing just enough words to convey meaning. They literally litter their screen with juicy details—live comments, a Coachella app lurking on Romeo’s phone, well-utilized needle drops—and thereby provide telling insights into the characters.
R#J is the definitive telling of Romeo and Juliet for the Zoomers, and likely a worthwhile experience for older Shakespeare nerds (plus digital wanna-bes). It’s also likely that this film will re-surface in high school English classes, or at least be used by students as a cutting edge Sparknotes equivalent. Here, style is substance; it’s as much a commentary on modern romance as it is an homage to Shakespeare. Even with DM-level intimacy, there’s something distancing about a digital interface as narrator; characters are expanded … but reduced. Therein lies the brilliance of R#J: we have the same moral and tribal struggles as Verona’s citizens, but the division is even more tangible with digital fluency. Perhaps Williams is urging us to see beyond this painfully artificial world and take the narrative into our own hands.