West Side Story is about the forbidden romance between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler). Tony has been released from prison and was the leader of the Irish gang, the Jets. Maria’s brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), is the leader of the Puerto Rican rival gang, the Sharks. The two gangs have been warring over territory, but that does not stop the two from falling in love.
Let me start off by disclosing that I am not a fan of West Side Story‘s plot. Spoilers below if you do not know the plot of West Side Story, but I think most know it is an adaption of Romeo and Juliet. I simply cannot suspend my disbelief that Maria would forgive Tony for murdering her brother, especially since they have only known each other for 2 days. I also hate that the Jets almost rape Anita. It is disgusting and I simply lose any and all sympathy for the Jets. I think especially in this version of the film, the attempted rape scene could have been discarded entirely. The Jets could have simply made crude remarks to Anita about Bernardo that would make her so mad that she lies about Maria’s death. I hated these two story elements in the original film and I hate it here too.
But despite not being a fan of the story, Steven Spielberg directs this film masterfully. It is absolutely stunning to look at. He knows exactly what shots are memorizing to see on screen and how to get the most out of his actors. He is at the top of his game here.
Just as Rita Moreno was the standout as Anita in the 1961 film, Ariana DeBose is the standout as Anita here. You are immediately captivated by her. The “America” sequence is just as enthralling as it is in the original and you can really feel her loss. She is definitely the reason to go watch this film. Rachel Zegler as Maria is also magnetic. She is very endearing in the film and has a beautiful singing voice that draws you in.
Ansel Elgort is the weakest link out of the bunch. Controversy about him aside, he did a fine job in the film. But he is only fine compared to the others. Mike Faist is another standout as Riff, Tony’s friend and current leader of the Jets. They did a great job highlighting his point of view, which may be misguided but is understandable.
I am glad that Spielberg and co. updated the story a bit to highlight gentrification and actually cast Latinos in the lead and supporting roles. The original ’61 film cast white actors as the Puerto Rican characters (besides Rita Moreno as Anita) in brown face. However, I think more could have been done to update the story. Also, I found the accents that the Puerto Ricans have in the film to be a bit problematic as they are very thick to showcase how “exotic” they are. I am no expert on accents, but the Puerto Ricans I know do not talk this way. I would suggest checking out Puerto Rican critic’s reviews of West Side Story for more coverage on this issue. But I did appreciate the choice to not subtitle the Spanish dialogue. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, it is easy enough to get the overall gist of what they are saying.
This is a beautifully made film, but as someone who does not like the plot of West Side Story I am simply not a fan of this film. I acknowledge and admire the great performances, music, choreography, and cinematography. If you are a fan of the original film or the musical itself, then Spielberg’s rendition is worth seeing. However, if the story of West Side Story bothers you as it does me, then this latest version still has those same plot issues.
I give West Side Story a C.