At this point, it should go without saying that any Timur Bekmambetov production that features a plot “told entirely through social media and smartphone screens” should be high-priority viewing for anyone who cares about the future of cinema. Of course, these are all signifiers of what the Kazakh-Russian mega-producer refers to as “Screenlife”; not quite a genre, but more an approach to filmmaking made possible through new screen-recording technologies conceived and developed by Bekmambetov and his Bazalevs studio. It wasn’t so long ago that the producer’s name was more recognized in relation to his directorial output, big-budget Hollywood pulp like Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but it seems that Bekmambetov’s interest in conventional Hollywood filmmaking dissipated in 2015 when he produced the first Screenlife film, Unfriended. In 2018, Bekmambetov spoke to Indiewire about this career pivot, saying “When you try Screenlife, it’s like a drug…You enter a world with no rules, there are no Sergei Eistensteins, no John Fords, nobody! So you can do whatever you want.”
This sense of freedom is apparent in Bekmambetov’s latest production, R#J, a Romeo and Juliet update that recasts the iconic characters as Black and Latinx American zoomers (the reveal of the film’s sole white cast member is a great gag), with the action exclusively existing in the digital realm (texts, live streams, and various social media). Bekmambetov and director Carey Williams (also credited as one of three writers) carry out their vision to its fullest and seemingly without compromise, though one must point out that despite the former’s assertion that Screenlife is a filmmaking style free from the rules of traditional cinematic grammar, R#J succeeds because of the ingenious ways it reinterprets cinematic editing and photography. The very act of switching between apps — and from phone to tablet to laptop — becomes its own seamless montage (often the recordings of one character will become content for another character’s viewing), while front-facing (FaceTime) live chats are positioned adjacent to one another in the same frame; a new media approximation of the De Palma split screen that also gestures towards the source material’s theatrical origins. R#J also understands the inherent intimacy of its aesthetic, that it is granting the audience direct access to a visualization of the characters’ psyches via their phones and homescreens. Just a quick glance at a lock or home screen reveals so much more about a character than endless expository dialogue could, as do their Spotify playlists (lots of diegetic music cues) and the curation of their Instas.
None of this would work if the characters weren’t drawn so well, but R#J (presumably thanks to Williams) is specific in its character work and clearly tapped into contemporary youth culture in a way few other films have yet to be. Romeo is a Letterboxd user with Radio Raheem as his lock screen, listens to Boards of Canada. Juliet is into Junji Ito and FKA Twigs, listens to Grouper. So, satisfying to see a director who actually understands the spirit of their times — and this understanding is reflected back in the youthful verve of his actors’ performances (in a just world, Siddiq Saunderson’s take on Mercutio would make him a star), all of which vibe with the film’s conceit perfectly. R#J may have not gotten significant buzz at this year’s festival, but it’s destined to have a significance that persists long after Sundance 2021 is behind us.