Tapping into the twin markets of A) lovers of rom-coms and B) recovering English majors, “Rosaline” promotes a fleetingly mentioned “Romeo and Juliet” character front and center, then builds a very clever and breezy movie around her. The result is a welcome starring showcase for Kaitlyn Dever more likely to prosper in the hamlet of Hulu than it would have fared in the province of theaters.
For those a little rusty on their Shakespeare, Romeo had actually been pining for Juliet’s cousin before they met and set in motion that whole star-crossed lovers thing. Here, we find the disarmingly modern Rosaline (Dever) sneaking around with Romeo (Kyle Allen), while her frustrated father (Bradley Whitford) is trying to arrange a marriage for her, which she steadfastly resists in a manner that resembles another new period streaming film, Amazon’s “Catherine Called Birdy.”
After blind dates with a series of old men and losers, Rosaline gets introduced to a dashing figure in Dario (Sean Teale), but in classic rom-com fashion she instantly dislikes him, mostly because he’s not the guy she ostensibly wants.
When their get-together prevents her from attending a party, the feckless Romeo falls for the visiting Juliet (Isabela Merced). Wounded, Rosaline starts scheming about how she might win him back while pretending to be helpful to her wide-eyed and smitten cousin, encouraging her to “play the field” and “sample at the buffet of life.”
Directed by Karen Maine, the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer”) took Rebecca Serle’s 2013 novel, which contemporized Rosaline’s tale, and put it back in Shakespearean times. Beyond the shift to Rosaline’s perspective that might explain why the movie feels so contemporary, making shrewd use of lots of popular songs to set the mood and establish the cheeky tone, whether that’s “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” or “I Love It.”
Playing around with Shakespeare in general, and “Romeo and Juliet” in particular, is a well-worn tactic by now, including the short-lived ABC series “Still Star-Crossed.” Still, the real foundation lies in casting Dever (who has been good in a whole lot of things, including “Booksmart,” “Dopesick” and “Unbelievable”) as a thoroughly modern protagonist, and Teale’s Dario as the kind of fellow who might prompt her to rethink this whole Romeo infatuation.
There are other nifty touches worked into the film (an homage to “The Graduate,” for example), as well as smart casting that allows Minnie Driver to place an irreverent stamp on the usually thankless role of the Nurse (now a registered nurse). Plus, the pacing moves briskly in a way that happily doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Hulu has become what feels like a haven for midscale movies that parent Disney doesn’t really know how to handle, including a recent pair of female-lead action vehicles, “The Princess” and “Prey,” the latter representing the latest installment in the “Predator” franchise.
Granted, the direct-to-streaming route appears to limit the opportunities and rewards for this sort of fare; still, given the choices that something like “Rosaline” faces, ‘tis better to see their light emanating from yonder TV than never to have them made at all.
“Rosaline” premieres October 14 on Hulu in the US, Star+ in Latin America and Disney+ in other territories.