Eve Annenberg, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, 2010, stills from a color film, 89 minutes.

EXUBERANCE, AWKWARDNESS, RECKLESSNESS, SPONTANEITY, AND YEARNING—qualities valued in productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy about teenage amour fou—are abundantly present in Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish. Defiantly artless and effortlessly sophisticated, the movie is an astonishment almost from beginning to end. It also has one of the funniest lines of the year (not to give it away, it concerns what every girl should put in her purse before she’s entombed).

A shape-shifting fiction that incorporates (sort of) a documentary of its own making, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish stars its director as Ava, a graduate student moonlighting as a nurse in a two-bed emergency room that looks like it was jammed into the corner of someone’s apartment. Ava has a complicated backstory: Nearly two decades earlier, she fell in love with a Hasidic bookstore clerk, married him, and had a daughter whom she left behind when she fled her husband’s religious community. She has returned to Brooklyn hoping to win back the now teenage girl before she is forced into an arranged marriage. In the meantime, she takes on a paid assignment from one of her professors, a little something he probably was supposed to finish himself in graduate school. Although she doesn’t speak the language, Ava agrees to modernize an existing Yiddish translation of Romeo and Juliet, a seemingly absurd enterprise since Hasidic schoolchildren aren’t allowed to read Shakespeare, and anyone else who reads Yiddish, as one of the Hasidic dropouts Ava hires to help her explains, is over ninety.

The comment applies reflexively to Annenberg’s film as well. The audience for Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish are not members of the eastern European Jewish orthodoxy but its dropouts—and by extension the dropouts from every enclosed religious, ethnic, or political community that still sees the world through a feudal lens. Annenberg can’t escape the shadow of West Side Story—as when she sets the balcony scene on a Brooklyn fire escape—but her film has more in common with countless amateur productions of the play performed by high school kids who understand the tragedy of the feuding Montagues and Capulets because they live out similar gang wars on their own mean streets.

Which makes the film sound grimmer than it is. The pleasure of Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is located in the lyrical scenes where Ava’s helpers—self-exiled from their religious community and surviving on the street through credit card scams—soar in their imaginations as they envision themselves as Shakespeare’s characters. Annenberg segues back and forth between Lazer, Mendy, and Bubbles lounging on Ava’s couch and the same three playacting Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio as they, for example, return on the D train from a day at Coney Island, joshing with one another in iambic pentameter—or Yiddish approximations of the same. (All Yiddish dialogue is subtitled.) Almost all the actors in the large cast are nonprofessionals, and, strangely, they are far more inspired and believable playing Shakespeare’s characters than they are as modern analogues to themselves. Since romantic love has no place in Hasidic culture, Romeo is more comfortable with his male pals than with Juliet (who, of course, is played by the same actress who plays Ava’s daughter). Indeed, the fact that Lazer can’t quite fathom what makes Romeo so crazy about Juliet until he acts out their wedding-night love scene—discreetly shot through gauze and introduced by a close-up of a Chagall painting—is exactly Annenberg’s point, and the point of all performance in life and art.

Amy Taubin

Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish opens July 8 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.