The oft fruitful merging of Ye Olde English writing and YA fiction is not quite an alien concept. Its known heyday in the 90s and 00s gave us the likes of Clueless, She’s the Man, and 10 Things I Hate About You. Often stacked up with more direct adaptations of Shakespeare or Austen being booked in near-proximity. After a lengthy hibernation, the next in line makes an immediate leap to shake up the dynamics, notch its focal point on an alternate heroine. Here, she’s named Rosaline. We’ve had multiple variations on Romeo and Juliet, though never one to involve a lesser-spoken family member’s romance. The former, at base level, would have a tall order to break formula. And yet, director Karen Maine (Obvious Child) found a previously obscured avenue to skate across.
The result, at first glance, is close in nature to what Shakespeare’s ancestors would feign to create as self-insert fanfics with a Bardian timbre. Rather convenient this was already inspired by a popular novel, Rebecca Serle’s When You Were Mine. So the derivation was previously in place, tonality embellished at the mercy of writing duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Spectacular Now). And a spark to unite the two then trots in by the title character’s (Kaitlyn Dever) blunt charm. Rosaline is the youngest to the Capulet clan, a previously unseen figure in the grand romantic tragedy. Underswept by her flock’s ongoing feud with the Montagues, she’s enamored with their most notable heir, Romeo (Kyle Allen). They foster a hidden friendship, known only to her nurse (Minnie Driver). And oblivious to her dad Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) overeager to arrange a suitor. Rosaline has her intentions clear, to profess at a highly contested masked Ball. An event she ultimately fails to show up for, with her love stolen away by her cousin, the doting Juliet (Isabella Merced).
Thus initiate an exercise in madcap snark with family reuniting, while Rosaline channels her unbridled ex energy to take back her chance at romance. It doesn’t help her Romeo is an aloof, simple-minded fool, oblivious to her advances. And that her preassigned beau Dario (Sean Teale) is a bit of an uptight chauvinist in need of a reality check. He’s the one to blow Rosaline’s chances with Romeo, a forced boat ride delaying her venture to the ball. While the likes of courier Steve (Nico Haraga), gay bestie Paris (Spencer Stevenson), and bullish soldier Tybalt (Alistair Toovey) wait in the wings to aid our flighty heroine in her cat and mouse ploys.
And I could find no fault in this amount of coy, comical marksmanship dotted through Neustadter and Weber’s screenplay. Actions certainly leap off the page a little better than words in Maine’s hands, even as aspects come off rather convoluted for Rosaline to keep up with. We don’t quite lose any sort of hilarious bite in the process, its impact is merely lessened with the extra steps in play. Be it over explanation of strategy, or subversive jabbing at Shakespeare’s key bullet points. The original story is flipped on its head so tightly, one would question how that wasn’t already succeeded in a bite-size SNL sketch. There’s the threat of war, made silly. The double death of both star-crossed lovers, tested and toyed for theater-style laughs. The fondness for sneaking around, absent of fear. Purists of the source material are bound to balk at this errant deviation, and often for good reason. It can’t put in 100% to commit to its alterations, flattering and farcical as they appear – the latter rings very true judging by how much I was chuckling.
Dever’s very much up to the challenge, reconnecting with her knack for dry wit last seen in Booksmart and Last Man Standing. She’s jumping over figurative hoops to land an observation of either forlorn love or family upheaval in an upbeat, intelligent fashion. Her skill is on complete display, storming around in highly vocal rumination while still fashioning a joke. A double-sided performance with purpose, often leaving her castmates balancing on their toes. Most of that supporting weight falls on Allen, channeling Brad Pitt looks with Sean Penn in Fast Times-level attitude – he’s that much of an alluring village oaf. Stevenson and Haraga offer fleeting swipes with gravity, whenever their characters try not to ingratiate the mood. Whitford absorbs himself deep into that silver fox demeanor, as does Christopher McDonald effortlessly assuming the part of his Montague equal. Driver’s sharp interjections often steal the show at the most opportune times, one wishes she was further involved in the ex’s affairs.
Maine is occupying quite the chess board, her players on one side, and the sidewinding twists of satire on the other. For her, it is no ardent trial to meld the two with poignant respect for classical motifs, leaps ahead of, perhaps, Kay Cannon’s Cinderella. It might not always be symmetrical, however. Certain character quirks can outweigh its forward momentum, we get too much of that detracting energy out of Dario, Steve and Paris. The trio play as effectively as OC self inserts, not quite blending in with the scenery. However, Dario at least notches an ounce of intuition, elevating past a one-off. All of Maine’s cast do have a tough order to fill, merging their energy with this modernized Shakespearean prose. With a musical underscore dabbling in soft rock bardcore. And with a lush Italian backdrop used to its highest advantage, DoP Laurie Rose (Freaky) capturing a busy wide frame throughout with a surplus of filtered natural light.
To go laidback and natural, that’s the persistent course of action Maine settles best on. Rosaline doesn’t chart any new territory with the trend of modern rom-coms in a classical light, or vice-versa. And clearly, there are a handful other titles who commit to the idea with a greater passion for the material they’re either following faithfully, or lampooning with great acerbity. Maine has done her homework, comfortably taking a backseat while this series of cleverly vicious revenge antics proceeds uninterrupted. Its idea of tone stumbles with what form of comedy it’s striving towards. Dever and her teammates work triumphantly to balance the scales; after a while, they do, and they maintain level through the finish line as the young Capulet daughter aims high for her future. We can’t say the same for the future of formula-battling period films, at least here. But Rosaline will be darned to try and try again, revisits warranted. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Rosaline streams on Hulu October 14; rated PG-13 for some suggestive material and brief strong language; 96 minutes.