Director Karen Maine’s new comedy, Rosaline, works overtime to find a new perspective in one of the most well-known stories of all time. The tale in question? None other than William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which remains so iconic that its influence continues to be felt today. As its title suggests, Maine’s film does not place its focus on either of that play’s eponymous, star-crossed lovers, though, but rather on the woman who had originally captured young Romeo’s heart before he set his eyes for the first time on her cousin, Juliet.
In Shakespeare’s play, Rosaline is mentioned frequently but never given an actual line of dialogue. Here, the character is reimagined as a brash and determined young woman who refuses to simply accept Romeo’s change of heart. Instead, she sets out to win him back through any means necessary. The film, in other words, attempts to build a fairly common rom-com plot out of the most iconic love story of all time. Rosaline, to its credit, mostly succeeds at doing so, thanks in no small part to the fiery and charismatic performance given by its young lead.
When Rosaline begins, things are going pretty well for its eponymous young heroine (played here by Booksmart star Kaitlyn Dever). While her father (a lovably irritable Bradley Whitford) remains committed at the start of the film to forcing her into an arranged marriage with one of Verona’s many wealthy men, Dever’s Rosaline has grown adept at fending off all the male suitors that are sent her way. Her unwavering commitment to doing so has, consequently, left her with the freedom to not only spend her days reading about the world and its history but also continue to meet nightly with her lovestruck crush, Romeo (Kyle Allen), who is imagined strikingly well here as an unoriginal and dull young playboy.
Rosaline’s dream of running away with Romeo is dashed, however, when she realizes one night that he has left his relationship with her behind in favor of a new romance with her beautiful young cousin, Juliet (Isabela Merced). Rosaline later learns that her once-enamored admirer inadvertently met and fell in love with Juliet while attending a Capulet gathering (you know the one), which she missed while she was away on an obligatory date with a surprisingly charming and handsome war veteran named Dario (Sean Teale). This unfortunate twist of fate effectively sets the stage for the rest of Rosaline‘s story, which any well-versed rom-com fan should be able to predict without breaking much of a sweat.
That said, Rosaline is not without its surprises. By rewriting its titular heroine not as an uninvolved spectator but as an active participant in Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love story, the film, which is based on a 2012 YA novel by Rebecca Serle, finds a number of ways to cleverly subvert certain iconic beats from Shakespeare’s original play. While the film’s many subversions will likely irk all the Shakespeare purists out there as well, Rosaline manages to rewrite its iconic source material in such a playfully irreverent manner that it becomes easy to accept all of its many, many changes.
Dever’s lead performance also plays an integral role in Rosaline nailing its tongue-in-cheek tone. Given the all-too-rare chance to lead her own film, Dever doesn’t let the opportunity to completely walk away with Rosaline pass her by. Here, she demonstrates the same comedic chops and charisma that she memorably showcased in Booksmart. However, it’s her ability to stay true to her character’s narcissistic personality without making her wholly unlikable that allows Rosaline to work as well as it does. The film would otherwise fall apart without Dever’s performance, which quickly emerges as both the beating heart of Rosaline and its most useful source of comedy.
While the film itself could stand to shed a few of its 96 minutes, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s script finds plenty of room for moments of genuine comedy and romance within Rosaline’s fairly formulaic narrative. Anyone who’s ever caught themselves rolling their eyes at the film’s iconic pair of young lovers will, in particular, likely delight in the ways Rosaline both plays up and pokes holes at their short-lived love story. (That’s especially true of an unexpected homage to The Graduate that Maine, Neustadter, and Weber throw out at exactly the right moment.)
Not all of Rosaline‘s comic swings work, including one recurring gag involving an unreliable, perpetually stoned courier named Steve (Nico Hiraga). The film’s misses never end up outweighing its hits, though, and that’s largely due to how well-cast Rosaline‘s ensemble is. Supporting players like Christopher McDonald and Spencer Stevenson, for instance, turn in spectacularly over-the-top performances as Lord Capulet and Paris, respectively. Kyle Allen also gives a surprisingly pitch-perfect performance as Romeo, whom Rosaline joyfully reimagines as the ultimate Shakespearean himbo.
Rosaline is, in other words, a perfectly fine new take on Shakespeare’s most iconic love story. Like many of the films that seem to debut exclusively on streaming platforms these days, it’s a bit too visually bare and narratively uninventive to truly rise above its competition. However, as both a riff on one of the most well-known stories of all time and a homage to the kind of YA Shakespeare adaptations that were commonplace in the ’90s and early 2000s, Rosaline is a fun, if minor, success.
Rosaline is now streaming on Hulu.