More Info



Transfiguring Adoption awarded this movie 3 Hoots out of 5 based on how useful it will be for a foster/adoptive family. [Learn more about our Hoot grading system here]

Movie Info:

  • Rating: PG-13 (Some Strong Violence, Brief Smoking, Strong Language, Suggestive Material, Thematic Content)
  • Genre: Musical, Romance
  • Runtime: 156 minutes
  • Studio: 20th Century Studios

From the Cover of West Side Story (2021) by 20th Century Studios:

“Love at first sight strikes when young Tony spots Maria at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks – two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.”

Transfiguring Adoption’s Overview:

West Side Story (2021) is a telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in New York City in 1957 much like the original musical it is based upon. There are some differences but much of the basic plot is the same as the 1961 film. However, this version does elaborate more on the racial disparity between the Sharks and Jets and also shows more how the local police treat the locals differently. There is also more mature content on screen compared to the older musical from 1961 so there is a more intense tone to the movie overall. Caregivers should be advised that this is not a film for younger children. Musicals can be written for various age groups so this needs to be kept in mind before hitting your local theater. This movie is also 2 ½ hours long so realistically your younger audience will lose interest pretty quickly in the plot.

The target audience appears to be children age 13 and up. It also appears this movie would be best for most families with a love for musicals. 

** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **

How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?

The youth involved all appear or are hinted to be lacking in adult support and for this reason youth with similar losses may relate to characters in this film. However, this is not a child-friendly movie. Like many musicals this is a very long movie with lots of complex plots that are not suitable for younger audiences. However, caregivers of teens who love emotional musicals will love the new cast and the fresher take on issues that still pervade our current social discussions about racial inequality, what defines family, and why youth need caring adults.

Discussion Points:

  • Racial Inequality
    This should not shock anyone who has actually seen the 1961 film of the hit Broadway Play, but this version of the film looks even closely at how racial inequality affects youth in the wider community. While we would hope that since 1957 there has been greater strides in equality for all there are still some common concepts that are still relatable today. Lieutenant Schrank embodies this the most in how he speaks to and of the Sharks (which are all Latino young men with roots from Puerto Rico). This is especially telling in the racially charged discussion he has with the Jets about how the ethnic group is moving into the neighborhood. For social change to happen we need to be open and honest about the issues that persist today to both help youth in positions of privilege ally themselves with members of the community combat racism and prejudice and also to learn how to better listen to the POC community about what good allyship looks like for them.
  • Defining Family
    The draw of the gangs is made clear upon our learning that Riff, Tony, and other characters who make up the Jets or Sharks are parentless. To gain support and a sense of belonging are very important needs for people of any age but especially young people. While it is great for youth people to gather and support one another if there isn’t the involvement of safe adult relationships these groups can make rash and unsafe decisions that can lead them and others into harm’s way. This is why connection with safe relationships like Tony and Valentina’s is crucial for adolescent development.
  • Youth Need Adult Supports
    While it is implied that Bernardo, Anita, and Tony are older and probably in their upper 20s or early 30s, it is clear that they have largely raised themselves and perhaps are not the best examples of wisdom for the younger Sharks and Jets. There is a lot of anger and frustration that has been left unresolved and certainly contributes to how they and the other members of the gangs respond to stress. Much like the Jets and Sharks, young people are more likely to feed off one another and make poor decisions without a caring adult invested in their future and well being. Tony was clearly on a very destructive path prior to spending time in jail and then being released to Valentina’s supervision. It is clear how her influence has helped him process the pain of the past and try to make better decisions for his future. However, once he tries to involve himself with Riff and the other Jets he is often dragged into self-destructive behaviors. The same scenarios play out today in the lives of young people and the best intervention for our youth is having more adults like Valentina who care deeply for youth and wish to invest in them and speak to them in ways youth can understand with compassion and care.

Cautionary Points:

  • Violence
    This film features violence inline with that of a film taking place in 1957. There are gun fights, knife fights, fist fights, and fights with youth using weapons such as rocks, bricks, pipes, and chains. Characters are killed and bloodied after such fights. There is also a scene where a character has a nail driven into their ear during a fight. While this film may not be as graphic as others it’s still important to remember that youth who have endured trauma often have overused stress-activation pathways to the limbic system and this can set off “fight or flight” responses even in response to positive excitement. For this reason caregivers need to keep an eye out for youth who may be triggered by the excitement of fight scenes in addition to trauma triggering from previous experiences.
  • Death of Characters
    During the course of the film Riff and Bernardo are both stabbed and die from the resulting injuries. There is a longer scene where Anita must identify Bernardo’s body and is grieving heavily. Tony is also shot and killed at the end of the film with his lifeless body carried away. While these characters are all fictional youth can be triggered by watching the death of a character and respond to unresolved grief from previous losses so caregivers should be aware to watch for such a response from their youth.
  • Gang Activity
    The movie centers around two rival gangs fighting over territory so there are related behaviors such as vandalism, violence, going to jail, attacking women, stealing, smoking cigarettes and marijuana, minors drinking beer, and promiscuity. Though the film does show that there are permanent consequences to such activity in character deaths and injury this may be triggering for youth who idolize gang involvement.
  • Police Brutality/Racism
    Throughout the film it is clear that Officer Kripke and Lieutenant Schrank show obvious favoritism towards the white Jets over the Latino Sharks. Lieutenant Schrank makes a point to slap Bernardo in front of the two gangs and egg him on while he relaxes when alone with the Jets and seems to encourage their vitriol towards the Sharks. Bernardo observes directly when asked why his community doesn’t call the police for help: “When you show up you arrest us.” While this is a fictitious piece and doesn’t dig very deep into this plot point this may be triggering for youth who are not trusting of police officers due to racial profiling and other issues that persist currently.
  • Racially Charged/Foul Language
    Throughout the film the ethnically derogatory term “Spic” is used frequently and often. The term “Pollack” is also used for the white characters a couple of times but the use of the term towards the Latino communities are more pervasive throughout the film. There is also discussion from Lieutenant Schrank about how members of the Puerto Rican community are taking over the neighborhood by moving in and having babies. Jet characters also tell Anita: “Go back to where you came from” and “She’s too dark to pass.” Such discussion can be triggering for youth who have experienced racist language being used towards them. One character also says “goddammit” a few times and there are insults said such as “go suck a pickle” and “suck on your sister’s titty you guinea hyena” that can also be considered explicit.
  • Implied Sexual Content
    At the start of the film Riff comes out from a construction vehicle with Graziella and it’s clear they have been intimate. Anita and Bernardo also come home from the dance kissing sensually as they head to the bedroom to likely have intimacy. Throughout the movie Tony and Maria kiss very sensually and end up making out on her bed after Tony kills Bernardo. They are roused from Maria’s bed unclothed and have to dress before leaving the room so they had sex for sure. No characters are shown fully unclothed or in the action of having sex while on screen.

Discussion Guide:

  1. What was your favorite character? Why is that?
    Caregiver Note: While this question will appear to be “fluff”, this is a good way to start discussing hard topics. Just jumping into hard questions is often difficult for most adults, let alone youth who struggle with interpersonal relationships and trusting adults. Allow your youth to discuss characters they appreciate and why to gain insight into where your youth may be emotionally and mentally with associating with such characters. I don’t advise this as clinical advice, but if you talk more about the movie this may help you make other connections later as a caregiver.
  2. Why are the police more lenient with the Jets than the Sharks?
    Caregiver Note: I want to start by saying that this is never an easy discussion. It’s easy for adults to want to protect our youth and make big issues go away. However, the issue of systemic racism still persists today and for that reason it is very important for caregivers to be prepared to talk to youth, POC or white, about this topic to prepare them for the reality that is around them. Unfortunately, the white Lieutenant Schrank holds racist attitudes towards the Puerto Ricans in the neighborhood and makes this very clear in his talk with the Jets. This mindset affects his work and leadership with the local police department by how he enforces power with the minority characters but is lax and friendly towards the white Jets, who are the clear antagonizers of this film. This shows how having leadership that reinforce racism can have a trickle down effect in the communities they should be serving equitably.
  3. Why is Bernardo so distrusting of Tony?
    Caregiver Note: Tony is well-known as a leader of the Jets and has likely had previous interactions with Bernardo in their youth as it is implied they are close in age. Between a personal history with Tony, the very intense relationship with the Jets, and the police’s favoritism for the Jets it’s pretty understandable why Bernardo would hold prejudice against Tony. Bernardo may be hot-headed and fueled with machismo but he does truly care for his sister and does not want her in harm’s way. This is evidenced in his attempt to set her up with mild-mannered Chino who is not involved with the Sharks at the start of the film. Bernardo sees himself permanently fixed as the community leader to protect against the Jets but wants more for his sister, who he sees as young and naïve. While it’s easy for us, and Maria, to want Bernardo to drop these prejudices, it’s very hard for an older brother with this type of history with Tony and knowing that Tony has a history of being in jail.
  4. Why didn’t Doc and Valentina’s relationship “fix” the neighborhood?
    Caregiver Note: While it is wonderful that Doc and Valentina fell in love and had a life together that doesn’t negate the history of the communities around them. We wish that such conflict could be magically fixed by such a union, but without having more men of a privileged position like Doc to continue allyship and extend allyship beyond the context of his personal romantic relationship that will not heal the persisting issues that exist in the community. Real change can’t occur from one couple without addressing the issues with the police, the neighborhood, the school system, and the personal relationships between the community members harmed by such systemic barriers. In the same way, loving a child of color and claiming to be “color blind” will not remedy the barriers around your child. While investing in personal relationships is very important, that will not be the only change required to heal communities with such histories.
  5. Why do the neighborhood boys want to be with the Jets and Sharks?
    Caregiver Note: We know already that characters such as Tony, Riff, Bernardo, and Maria are all parentless. Without biological families to rely on for support these youths have looked into their communities for sources of support. Throughout the film very few adults are seen investing in these young people and they are often left to their own devices. For this reason the boys have joined gangs to fulfill senses of support and identity that are lacking from the family of origin and the community members around them that, like Valentina, could have stepped in but have refrained.
  6. How could the neighborhood be different if someone like Valentina was caring for more of the boys as she cares for Tony?
    Caregiver Note: If there were more men and women alike like Valentina who cared for these young people as individuals rather than just seeing them as local nuisances this could have prevented some of the losses suffered by the end of the film. When young people believe they have nothing to lose like Riff they can be reckless and self-sabotaging. If youth have intervention like Tony, while there is no guarantee all will benefit there is at least hope. Tony receives encouragement to look for better and that life matters even more than love. Riff is only encouraged by his peers and by members of law enforcement to keep on self-destructive paths. If that energy had been pointed and encouraged elsewhere this could have changed and saved many lives.
  7. Who is like Valentina to you? Why?
    Caregiver Note: Allow your youth to lead this conversation as much as they are comfortable. It’s easy for adults to take for granted that youth know who to ask for help when it is needed or how to even ask for help. Help your youth come up with different supports they can rely on for various needs at home, at school, and in the community.
  8. Why does Bernardo try so hard to protect Maria?
    Caregiver Note: Bernardo is quick-tempered but he cares deeply for his sister. It’s heavily implied that Maria is Bernardo’s only surviving family member. He came to New York before her in hopes of giving her a better experience and as a result has suffered much pain and loss he hopes she can avoid. Maria is 18 and legally a rent-paying adult but Bernardo struggles with his sister’s naive-nature due to the systemic barriers he and Anita have already faced in the same neighborhood. Though he is overbearing and should have listened to Anita, he tried to protect Maria to show his love for her.
  9. What is different between Valentina and Bernardo and Anita? What is the same?
    Caregiver Note: While Anita is shown as more level-headed than Bernardo she and Bernardo are both still young and grappling with their own traumas from past and present. This influences their ability to make decisions and influence others in their circle of influences. Valentina, however, is older and has more life experience. She has wisdom to offer that young people lack in the echo chambers of the gangs. However, she is only one woman and can only do so much in bridging the divide between the Sharks and Jets alone. While it is honorable that Bernardo and Anita try very hard to take leadership roles in their home and communities they could still benefit from having an older and wiser adult to advise them as well.
  10. How can I be like Valentina for you?
    Caregiver Note: Allow your youth to lead this conversation as much as they are comfortable. It’s easy for adults to take for granted that youth know who to ask for help when it is needed or how to even ask for help. Help your youth come up with different supports they can rely on for various needs at home, at school, and in the community. Also be prepared for potential criticism and don’t take it personally. It’s important to remember that we may react in ways that we believe are loving, like Bernardo, but perhaps is not the best response for our unique youth.

About the Reviewer: Rachael B. Rathe

Rachael B. Rathe is an East Tennessee native with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology with a Minor in Child & Family Studies from The University of Tennessee Knoxville. She has worked in mental health since 2013 and in foster care/adoptions for a private provider agency since 2014. Rachael was inspired to work in the field after working with children and teens on a volunteer basis 2008 – 2013. Rachael’s ideal self-care day involves snuggling on a couch with her kitties (Tabitha, Fergus, and Rufus) while enjoying a good movie or book. She also enjoys galavanting around conventions concerning all things nerd and geekery.

Lost Password

Please enter your username or email address. You will receive a link to create a new password via email.