Between 10 Things I Hate About You, the Twelfth Night-inspired She’s the Man and 2013’s quirky zombie comedy Warm Bodies, Hollywood has proven its knack for transforming Shakespearean source material into teen rom-com gold. The math seems pretty straightforward: Take an already-familiar Shakespeare play. Subtract the Early Modern English. Hire twentysomethings who are way too attractive and physically developed to be teenagers to play them anyway. Throw in some steamy kissing scenes. Voila, you’ve got yourself a pretty great movie. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the screenwriting duo behind 500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Disaster Artist) and based upon the bestselling Rebecca Serle novel When You Were Mine, Rosaline attempts to cash in on this tried-and-tested hit-making formula—but finds that it’s not as foolproof as its previous users have made it out to be.
Told through the perspective of Rosaline Capulet (Kaitlyn Dever), a character only briefly mentioned in the original Shakespeare work, Rosaline attempts to bring modern sensibilities to Romeo and Juliet. When the film begins, the lesser-known Capulet damsel is in the beginning stages of a secret love affair with Romeo Montague (Kyle Allen). Their romance has been kept hushed for two reasons: 1. Like the source material, the Capulet and Montague families are sworn enemies. 2. Rosaline’s father Adrian Capulet (Bradley Whitford) is trying to sell her off in an arranged marriage. The forbidden romance is starting to heat up until Rosaline finds herself unable to reciprocate Romeo’s confession of love, pushing the love-sick teen away and into the arms of another. While Romeo is busy falling in love-at-first-sight with Juliet (Isabela Merced), his new sweetheart who also happens to be his ex’s cousin, Rosaline is occupied by Dario (Sean Teale), another suitor sent by her father. Rosaline blames Dario for her fractured romance with Romeo and, as a result, finds him absolutely repulsive despite his dashing good looks and posh British accent. Though Rosaline and Dario become acquainted with one another early in the film, their introduction reeks of enemies-to-lovers and makes the film’s conclusion pretty obvious from the get-go.
Whether Rosaline intentionally leans into its predictable ending or does it unknowingly is somewhat unclear, as the work makes a point to poke fun at other clichés of the romantic comedy—and, at times, does it well. It’s especially successful at using music to spoof the rom-com genre: During the film’s colorful title sequence, Natalie Cole’s upbeat “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” begins to play, but is abruptly cut short when Rosaline is woken up by her sarcastic in-home nurse. The song, which has stood as a symbol for joy and cheerfulness in movies like The Parent Trap, A Cinderella Story and While You Were Sleeping, is comedically juxtaposed to the groans of a less-than-peppy protagonist to make for a funny and tone-setting moment that subverts audience’s expectations. Another witty moment happens when Rosaline is heartbroken upon the discovery that Juliet and Romeo have been seeing each other. The scene begins with Rosaline spread out upon her bed in an exaggerated pose that recalls the drama of Renaissance paintings. An instrumental version of “All By Myself” plays in what we believe is non-diegetic sound, but when Rosaline’s nurse shoos away a violinist standing in the corner and the music transitions to his poor rendition of the song, we realize Rosaline hired someone to stand in her bedroom and play the break-up song while she sulks. Director Karen Maine effectively uses sound to establish the film’s sarcastic tone and creates genuinely funny, self-aware moments.
Unfortunately, not all attempts to play with tropes are as successful—in fact, the film falls flat on its face in its handling of its LGBTQ+ characters. This happens through Paris (Spencer Stevenson), Rosaline’s G.B.F., Gay Best Friend. The G.B.F. is often a fun little “accessory” to a straight, white female protagonist. The G.B.F. isn’t much of a character himself, as his reasons for existing in the story are limited to providing comedic relief, moving the narrative along and/or helping the protagonist on her journey. He’s usually a sassy, flamboyant fashionista that enjoys girl-talk and making the occasional snarky comment. This trope was especially popular in the ‘00s—think Damian (Daniel Franzese) from Mean Girls—but has seen pushback from more recent works that aim to disrupt this stereotype. Rosaline tries (very poorly) to address this trope. Midway through the film, Paris remarks to Rosaline, “Your father is not the only lord in town who has a child he disapproves of,” while looking in the mirror and trying on loud, over-the-top women’s hats. Paris’ verbal resistance of the Gay Best Friend trope, declared while he’s engaging in characteristic behavior of said trope, is the film’s sarcastic way of calling attention to the stereotype. However, beyond this single line of dialogue, Rosaline does little else to resist falling into (rather than critiquing) this stereotype. After this line is blurted out, Paris’ actions are exclusively to benefit Rosaline; once he serves his purpose to her, we never see him again. That said, Stevenson does a fine job with the little he is given. His charisma and queerness are a breath of fresh air in a Verona that is otherwise very white and straight, even if his best friend is too busy to appreciate it.
Another noteworthy performance is Dever’s; she is fantastic as the jilted lover. Her comedic timing is pitch-perfect and her talent for physical comedy is given a chance to shine. When Rosaline is first introduced, her teenage-girl-annoyance with her patriarchal setting is both charming and relatable. She doesn’t want an arranged marriage; she wants to marry for love. She has no interest in staying at home all day tending to the needs of children, her husband or her house. She has dreams and ambitions: On a blind date set up by her father, she informs us that wants to be a cartographer. It’s exciting to hear, but, as the film progresses, we find that these desires—outside of the romantic ones—are never brought to fruition. When she’s not chasing one boy, she’s falling for another one. Sure, she gets a handsome boyfriend at the end, but what about her other goals? The film sets Rosaline up to be an independent agent, but cannot imagine an ending outside of patriarchal standards of happiness. Given the stereotypical treatment of Paris, and the unsatisfactory development of its own protagonist, Rosaline reveals that it’s nowhere near as modern, or feminist, as it wants us to believe.
Rosaline gets some things absolutely right—the casting of Dever, the use of music to lampoon genre clichés, its creative point of view—but it misses the mark it establishes for itself. It’s a misguided work that highlights the insincerities that have emerged in Hollywood’s recent charge towards “inclusion” and “diversity.” Movies that center marginalized characters, but lack the conviction (or heart) to do their stories justice are simply empty gestures.
Director: Karen Maine
Writer: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Starring: Kaitlyn Dever, Isabela Merced, Sean Teale, Kyle Allen, Spencer Stevenson
Release Date: October 14, 2022 (Hulu)
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.