A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Explores themes of social injustice, an us-vs.-them mentality, racism, and a corrupt system in mid-1950s New York, as well as the power of compassion and empathy. Although America is known as "land of the free," movie portrays how immigrants struggle and are discriminated against, and the impact of impoverishment, including increased feelings of alienation and desperation (one White character says that "this isn't about skin, it's about territory"). Love is portrayed as being stronger than hate, but violent, climactic ending suggests that it can't really conquer all.
Positive Role Models
Maria is clearly positioned as a positive role model. She doesn't believe in fighting or war, is able to see people for who they are rather than based on race or social class. Anita is strong, has agency. Valentina is caring and protective but doesn't take any guff. Tony is trying to follow the right path, but it's hard for him to stick to it when people he cares about are in trouble. Riff and Bernardo can't put their hate for each other aside; determined to hurt each other, they'll fight to the death, even at expense of someone's life. Detectives/police officers are portrayed as judgmental and biased and, in some cases, racist.
Unlike the 1961 movie, which had only one actual Latino actor in the main ensemble, this version boasts all Latinos (mostly Puerto Rican, one Afro-Latino actor) playing the Sharks. Women have more agency here than in the original, notably Maria, Anita, and Valentina. Character Anybodys isn't referred to as a tomboy but is depicted as transgender; they are bullied for that at times but ultimately they're somewhat accepted by the Jets. Lyrics in "Gee, Officer Krupke" refer derogatorily to a sister with a mustache and a brother wearing a dress; in another scene, White characters disparage an Afro-Latina woman by calling her "too dark to pass" and telling her "go back where you came from."
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Violence & Scariness
The big rumble includes lots of fistfighting, punching, weapon use (chains, knives, pipes, bats, clubs), and two characters being stabbed to death. A character is shot and killed; the same gun is held by others and used to threaten; characters fight over it in a tense scene. Other scenes of hitting/beating. One character has a nail put through his ear (bloody). One character has to identify the body of someone she loves; two dead faces shown. An Afro-Latina character is sexually assaulted by a group of White men. A cop hits one of the Sharks. Anita slaps Maria. The Jets vandalize a mural of a Puerto Rican flag and steal from Puerto Rican shops. Tony's past includes a violent incident that haunts him. Much of the violence is expressed through choreographed numbers, which can lessen the impact for some.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Characters flirt, kiss, dance sensually, and, in two cases, have implied sex. Anita and Bernardo can be heard giggling in their bedroom after kissing suggestively. And Maria and Tony kiss and then are shown in bed together, with bare shoulders (her) and chest (him). Song lyrics include a reference to a "social disease."
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Language includes "s--t," "bulls--t," "ass," "d--k," "crap," "t-ts," "friggin'," "bastard," "SOB," "Christ almighty," "mother lovin'," "godforsaken," and "goddamn," plus slurs including "spic," "wop," "dago," "guinea," "hyena," "Chiquita Banana," "Polack," "pansy," etc. "Krup you" is used as a sound-a-like to "f--k you."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Teens and young adults smoke cigarettes, and characters drink; one scene takes place in a seedy bar. Reference to getting some beer and weed and going to the zoo. The lyrics of "Gee, Officer Krupke" include lines about parents being drunks, junkies, and using marijuana.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that West Side Story is Steven Spielberg's much anticipated adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet-inspired 1957 Broadway musical (which previously inspired the Academy Award-winning 1961 film). It stars Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as legendary star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria. The setting is still 1950s New York City, but this version features more of the Sharks' Puerto Rican neighborhood and the community of the historical midtown Manhattan neighborhood. Unlike the mostly whitewashed original film, this version has only actors with Latino backgrounds cast to play the Puerto Rican characters -- although cultural specificity gets lost among iffy accents and the casting of only one Puerto Rican actor in a key role. Expect romance (love at first sight, kissing, flirting, sensual partner dancing, and implied sex) as well as tragic violence (including several deaths, sexual assault against an Afro-Latina woman by a group of White men, and fight scenes involving fists, chains, knives, and, ultimately, a gun). The language is occasionally salty ("t-ts," "s--t," "damn," and more) and racist ("spic," "wop," "dago," "guinea," "Polack," etc.), and one song famously uses the words "Krup you" as a sound-a-like to "f--k you." Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and co-starring Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the original film adaptation), the film explores themes of social injustice and racism, as well as the power of compassion and empathy. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails.
Is It Any Good?
Spielberg's take on this legendary musical is gorgeously shot and brilliantly interpreted, with updates from the 1961 version to be more Latino (if not fully authentically Puerto Rican). The gifted cast is full of musical theater vets, including EGOT winner Rita Moreno as a new character, Valentina. The widow of the original musical/film's drugstore owner Doc, she runs the pharmacy and has taken Tony under her wing since he was released from prison on probation for nearly killing a rival gang member (both details are part of Kushner's substantial additions to the plot, deepening the characterizations). Kushner also adds dialogue between the supporting characters, beefs up the inclusion of Anybodys (Iris Menas) as transgender instead of "just" a tomboy, and tries to deliver the third-act sexual assault at Doc's in a way that forces the Jets to at least acknowledge their crime. The order of the musical numbers changes slightly for the better as well. The showstopper "America" is now set outside, in the Puerto Rican area of the community; "Somewhere" is sung by Valentina (rather than Maria and Tony); and "I Feel Pretty" takes place at the department store where Maria and her friends work the late shift as cleaners.
DeBose's Anita is particularly scene-stealing, with her strong personality, twirly dresses, and big sisterly attitude toward Maria. Faist's Riff is equally as impressive as both a dancer and singer. Zegler is excellent as Maria, who, while still young and naive, is also ambitious and dreams of a future full of opportunity and love. The only weak link in an otherwise perfectly cast film is Elgort; he's tall and handsome like Richard Beymer, but his voice, while better than expected, isn't nearly on the level of his co-stars. Of all the classic songs, the ones that stand out beyond "America" are the "Tonight" quintet; Anita and Maria's heartbreakingly beautiful duet "A Boy Like That/I Had a Love"; and the opening "Jet Song." Oscar-winning cinematographer and longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski firmly roots viewers in the ruins of the New York City neighborhoods that were destroyed to make Lincoln Center. Several of the shots are dazzling, and Justin Peck's choreography pays tribute to Jerome Robbins' without copying it move-by-move. Ultimately, Spielberg's version of West Side Story addresses the whitewashed (or, in Moreno's case, brown-faced) wrongs of the 1961 version. It provides a deeper backstory for the main characters and highlights his ensemble's enormous talent -- but Puerto Rican viewers may still wish it had more authentically represented their culture.
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Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.