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West Side Story

Movie review by
Kate Pluta, Common Sense Media
West Side Story Movie Poster Image
Musical masterpiece tackles race, with some violence.
  • NR
  • 1961
  • 152 minutes
Popular with kidsParents recommend

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 8 reviews

Kids say

age 11+
Based on 32 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Explores themes of social injustice and judicial corruption in mid-1950s New York and encourages viewers to question the meaning of "liberty." Although America is known to be "land of the free," the movie portrays how incoming immigrants struggle and are discriminated against. There are frequent gang fights based on race, but in the end there's a sense that lessons are learned and love and understanding of people as individuals, rather than groups, conquers all.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Maria is an inspirational role model who doesn't believe in fighting or war. She's able to view people for who they really are, rather than focusing on race or social class. The male role models in the film are lessons to be learned from. Riff and Bernardo are unable to let their hate for one another subside. Determined to hurt each other, they'll fight to the death, even if it's at the expense of someone else's life. 


Although choreographed with dance moves, the big fight scene leads to two characters being stabbed to death. Another is shot to death. A female character is nearly raped.


Brief reference to prostitution. Some kissing. 


The words "hell" and "s--t" are used, as are derogatory names: "spic" and "polack."


Coca-Cola bottles and boxes are moved about, and classic Chevrolet cars line the streets. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A musical number mentions drinking and the use of specific drugs. In dialogue, there are brief references to alcoholism. Many characters smoke cigarettes (accurate for the era).

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that West Side Story is an updated Romeo and Juliet story that explores race relations and immigration within a musical format. Street fighting and knifings are depicted, though some of the violence is lessened by the choreography. In one disturbing scene, a gang of boys physically abuses a young woman and a rape almost takes place. A major character is killed.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byChrissy505 March 8, 2009


This was an amazing, amazing movie with memorable characters and a wonderful story. It's also very sad I started crying when Tony gets killed and when Mar... Continue reading
Adult Written bysbdreamin April 9, 2008

Great for conversation on social issues

West Side Story is another classic, along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, except with some fantastic singing and dancing. The social message is the whole po... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old April 9, 2008

From ballerinas to gangsters...

I don't understand this movie at all. Good dancing , check , catchy tunes , check but they go from dancing ballerinas to knife holding gangsters. We had to... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byethanct86 January 3, 2016

A poignant treat for mature audiences, fans of musicals or not.

Some classic films have gotten no critical acclaim on their release; others have gotten huge critical success yet have fallen in popularity in recent days. One... Continue reading

What's the story?

A classic American musical with strong social commentary, WEST SIDE STORY updates Shakespeare's tragedy about star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, to 1950s New York City, where second-generation American street gang the Jets, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), are at constant odds with rival Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. A showdown is inevitable, but love gets in the way when Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer) falls for Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris). People die and hearts get broken.

Is it any good?

Co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, this beautiful musical is a visual masterpiece packed with talent. The music of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim is unforgettable, as are the Oscar-winning performances of George Chakiris as Bernardo and Rita Moreno as Anita, the spunky girlfriend of Bernardo and confidant of Maria.

The raging emotions of the characters are expressed through song and dance (Jerome Robbins' choreography mixes jazz, ballet, and Latin influences), resulting in a kinetic display of emotion more expressive than words. Stylish street-wise sets and cinematic technique take West Side Story to another level, rich with visual symbolism.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the issues of racism, immigration, gangs, and youth culture. What do you think the two gangs in West Side Story would say about the American Dream?

  • What kinds of stereotypes are explored in this movie? Does the movie serve to challenge or reinforce stereotypes?

Movie details

Themes & Topics

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