Utah-Made Romeo and Juliet Film Exceeds Expectations

by Blake Casselman

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet has seen the most film adaptations over the years, with more than 100 productions created for theatrical, home video, and television release to date, with another half-dozen currently in the planning or filming stage. The first filmed production of Romeo and Juliet was in France, screened publicly at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. In the relatively short history of World Cinema, Romeo and Juliet has one of the longest relationships with it.

Now, 117 years later, Parking Garage Pictures has released the latest adaptation of the play for the big screen. Written and directed by Joel Petrie, Romeo and Juliet is a modern retelling, which unlike the 1996 stylized and over-the-top Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Lehrman and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, brings the play down to a street level of realism.

Filmed in various locations around Salt Lake City, Utah, Petrie utilizes theater students, alumni, and some faculty from Utah Valley University, and for the most part it works. Staying true to the source material helps the execution of the story as well. Romeo (Dallin Major) exists primarily on the street with his friends Mercutia (Maddy Forsyth) and Benvolio (Topher Rasmussen). Opportunity appears to be what Romeo is searching for. Unlike the long-standing family rivalry which drives the conflict in the play, socio-economics and class distinction are at the heart of what brings the star-crossed lovers together, and ultimately drives them apart.

Romeo’s opportunity comes in the form of Juliet (Devin Neff) who lives in a double-wide trailer with her abusive father (Chris Clark) and long-suffering mother (Kaitlyn Dahl) and is looking for a way out of her dysfunctional existence. The two meet at a rave party, and almost immediately their fate is sealed despite the best efforts of Juliet’s Aunt (comically played by Laurie Harrop-Purser) to protect Juliet.

Major and Neff have a strong chemistry, and are the film’s emotional foundation. The other strength is a pocket universe which Petrie has created, where a world familiar to the audience visually is populated by people who speak only in a Shakespearian dialect: the famous balcony scene takes place on the porch of Juliet’s trailer. The characters engage in a street brawl when Mercutia is murdered, and Romeo retaliates and fatefully kills Tybalt (Shawn Francis Saunders). Romeo’s romantic rival, Paris (Jacob Squire) has ascended the socio-economic ladder higher than Juliet’s parents, and therefore makes him the perfect conduit for Capulet’s aspiring upward mobility. A scarred and black-fingernail-painted Apothecary (Ryan Templeman) supplies Romeo with the ill-fated poison from a dirty and drug-infested apartment.

While engaging, the film is by no means perfect. The acting by this motley crew of theatrically-trained actors is uneven at times. The film rises above its micro-budget in look and production value, but does remind at times with distracting wardrobe and location choices. Nevertheless, Parking Garage Picture’s Romeo and Juliet’s tone and pacing under Petrie’s deft direction overcomes its few deficiencies, and succeeds as one of the better adaptations of the Bard’s enduring romantic tragedy.

Romeo and Juliet is PG-13 for mature themes and violence, and will begin a limited special engagement at select Megaplex theaters in Salt Lake and Utah Counties beginning October 13th.

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