West Side Story (2021) Parent Guide
This film is so spirited and energetic that it practically leaps off the big screen.
Parent Movie Review
Maria (Rachel Zegler) is full of hope. Bright-eyed, and beautiful, the 18-year-old Puerto Rican girl has moved to New York City to live with her brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), leader of the Sharks gang. She cleans department stores at night but dreams of going to college and building a future.
Tony (Ansel Elgort) is determined to turn over a new leaf. Once leader of the Jets gang, the Polish-American man spent a year in prison after he almost killed someone in a fight. Twelve months of serious self-assessment put Tony on a new path, working at a drugstore and focused on staying clean.
When Maria and Tony lock eyes across a crowded community dance hall, they fulfil every romance trope by falling instantly in love. A dreamy dance and passionate kiss behind the bleachers follow; then an unwelcome interruption from Maria’s brother. Bernardo not only objects to his sister socializing with “gringos”; he is particularly opposed to Tony because of his connection to the Jets. The gangs are planning a rumble and with Maria in the picture, the fight is now personal.
Tony and Maria find themselves falling ever more deeply in love and are determined to end the cycle of violence that is consuming their community. But as the tale of Romeo and Juliet demonstrated 600 years ago, ending a feud is harder than it sounds….
Steven Spielberg is in top form with this adaptation, producing a film that is so energetic, so spirited, and so kinetic, that it practically leaps off the screen. The dance sequences are physical, athletic, and swirling with color and life. While many Broadway hits struggle to escape their origins on the stage, this version easily soars beyond those constraints, pushing at the boundaries of the theater screen. The cinematography brings a gripping immediacy to the scenes and the sound design is crystal clear, making footfalls, sighs, and the clink of a chain audible and unavoidably significant.
On top of the technical skill and the award-winning soundtrack, this movie has a superb cast. Rachel Zegler, a virtual novice who beat out 30,000 actresses in auditions for the role, brings luminous innocence and huge Bambi eyes to her critically important portrayal as Maria. Ansel Elgort gives us a Tony with hard-earned innocence, believing that if he can change, so can others. And Ariana DeBose owns every scene she appears in as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Not only is she a powerful dancer, but she has a ferocious love of life that is palpable whenever she’s on the screen. There is a real danger that she can steal this movie from the principal actors. In a tip of the hat to the 1961 movie adaptation, Rita Moreno, who played Anita, now appears as Valentina, the drug store owner who is helping Tony reform. It’s a touching tribute to Moreno’s career and a nod to her fans.
The entertainment also comes with some heavyweight topics. The neighborhood in which the characters live is slated for demolition, their tenements and walk up apartments to be replaced with high rent properties. In a bitter irony, the gangs are fighting over territory that will soon be gone. The movie explores issues of gang affiliation and violence, gentrification, racism, and anti-immigrant hostility which make this classic story sharply relevant in 2021.
Positives aside, West Side Story comes with some problems. The first is minor but viewers should know that there are multiple lines in Spanish that are not subtitled. My two years of junior high Spanish were not up to the challenge, and I spent those scenes trying to figure out what was going on. The next problem is the whole fall-in-love-at-first-sight thing. Call me a cold-hearted critic, but I simply don’t believe in it, and feeding that myth to teens is potentially dangerous. Encouraging adolescents to believe that they should turn their lives upside down because they feel a powerful attraction to someone is incredibly bad advice. (And sleeping with someone you’ve only known for a couple of days – without contraception – is not behavior anyone wants teens to emulate.) The biggest problem though, is the violence, including a chilling scene where a group of men attempt to rape a woman. More commonly, there are frequent fights in the movie – someone gets a nail through his ear, two men get stabbed, and one gets shot. All the fight scenes are filmed in detail, as elaborately choreographed as any ballet. While the violence is shown to be pointless, destructive, and tragic, it still gets lots and lots of bloody screen time. As Shakespeare, whose work clearly inspired this film, said, “These violent delights have violent ends.” Whether or not you think the film’s many delights are worth the violence is going to be a personal decision.Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose. Running time: 156 minutes. Theatrical release December 10, 2021. Updated February 10, 2022
Watch the trailer for West Side Story (2021)
West Side Story (2021)
Rating & Content Info
Why is West Side Story (2021) rated PG-13? West Side Story (2021) is rated PG-13 by the MPAA Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking.
Violence: There is a scene where graffiti is vandalized. A man remembers almost killing somebody. There are frequent scenes of physical assaults, some of which are planned and consensual. People fight with fists, chains, bats, and knives. A character is seen with a nail through his ear. A police officer slaps a man on the side of the head. Violent scenes are filmed in detail and with plenty of blood. People are stabbed to death and one is fatally shot. A gun is pointed at one man’s head and is pointed at other characters in several scenes. A group of men attempt to rape a woman. A woman slaps another woman across the face. A woman kicks a man in the head as she dances. A woman identifies a dead body in the morgue.
Sexual Content: Men and women kiss frequently in the film. It is implied that an unmarried couple have sex: they are seen embracing and then wake up together. A common law couple are implied to have sex. A group of men attempt to rape a woman before they are stopped. “Social disease” is mentioned in a song.
Profanity: There are approximately a dozen profanities in the film, including six terms of deity as well as minor curse words, a scatological curse, and an anatomical swear word. There are also other crude terms for male and female anatomy. There is frequent use of ethnic slurs aimed at several different groups.
Alcohol / Drug Use: People are seen smoking. Characters drink alcohol in social situations. Men are seen holding beer bottles. Song lyrics mention alcoholism, drug addiction, and marijuana. A character talks about drinking beer and smoking marijuana. A character drinks alcohol to cope with stress.
Page last updated February 10, 2022
West Side Story (2021) Parents' Guide
Do you believe in love at first sight? Would you be willing to behave like Maria did? Could you forgive Tony if you were her?
Why does Tony want to change? What helps him change? How do good intentions go sideways for him? How could he have avoided the tragedies that ensue?
Related home video titles:
This is a remake of the original film, West Side Story. Based on the Broadway hit, this musical came to movie theaters in 1961.
Hispanic culture in contemporary New York takes center stage in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, In the Heights.
Eilis, a recent immigrant from Ireland, falls in love with Tony, an established Italian, in Brooklyn.
High school students (played by much older actors) sing and dance their way through a 1950s school year in Grease.
The plot for West Side Story owes much to Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet. Julian Fellowes’ 2013 adaptation has a traditional setting. The story – with an adapted plotline – is retold from a woman’s perspective in Ophelia.