SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’ (2021) Paints a Candid Portrait of Its Vibrant Star

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“Moreno is the harbinger of her own legacy and delivers it with such poignancy that her charm and wit is enough of a selling point.”

With her role as Lydia on One Day at a Time coming to a close last year and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake to come out sometime in the near future, Rita Moreno at 89 years old is just as booked and busy as ever. The sprawling career of the Puerto Rican trailblazer is profiled in full vibrancy in Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. Director Mariem Pérez Riera delights in the legacy of the lively star, detailing the resilience and spunk that has kept her on our screens for seven decades. From Anita in West Side Story to Googie Gomez in The Ritz, Moreno has made her mark on film, in television, and on the stage; breaking barriers and opening doors for Latinx performers in Hollywood.

Before she was an EGOT winner, Rita Moreno was Rosita Moreno. Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, she and her mother immigrated to New York City when Moreno was a teen. By 16, she began dancing and performing professionally and not long after did she get her break as an actress when she was signed to MGM studios because Louis B. Mayer thought she looked like a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.” Though this was the exact reaction Moreno hoped for, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is purposeful in its interrogation of how her career has been governed by the perceptions of powerful men. As roles for women were shallow and there was no model for someone of her ethnic background, Moreno spent her fledgling career as a sexual object both on and off screen. Moreno speaks candidly about her experiences with sexual assault and the misogyny she faced; her trauma is palpable as she recalls these years old memories. This interspersed with footage of Moreno watching the Kavanaugh hearing is a glib reminder that though we may now be more aware post-MeToo, there is still no accountability for the abuses of powerful men.

As a Latina in Hollywood’s Golden Age, Moreno was routinely portrayed as the fetish object of white men, over-sexualized and with little agency. She was limited to playing the “exotic” roles, often having to darken her white skin and don an indiscernible accent to portray Natives and Island girls. Because of her Puerto Rican background, Moreno was relegated to whatever Hollywood’s popular stereotypes at the time were like playing the Burmese concubine, Tuptim, in 1956’s The King and I. She was given scraps and imbued them with as much exuberant spirit as she could. It wasn’t until 1961, when she earned the role of Anita in West Side Story, that she was able to play a multifaceted character that reflected her heritage instead of obscured it. Anita is vivacious and a spitfire, and for her portrayal, Moreno became the first Hispanic to win an Academy Award. Supposedly a breakthrough moment Latino stories on screen, Moreno recalls that even post-Oscar win she was offered nothing but stereotypes and thus didn’t star in another movie for seven years.

Rita Moreno points to her bedazzled shirt that reads "Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It"
Image Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Moreno is such a titan of a figure that covering her immense career and legacy can present a challenge in engaging with the full complexity of her life experience. The greatest fault of the film is its tendency to give a surface level overview of Moreno’s life, speeding past opportunities for depth in favor of covering the full scope of her career in 90 minutes. Moreno opens up about her tumultuous relationship with Marlon Brando and her privately difficult marriage to her now-deceased husband Leonard Gordon; I wish we had spent more time to understand these parts of her life in between receiving medals of honor. Nevertheless, Moreno is the harbinger of her own legacy and delivers it with such poignancy that her charm and wit is enough of a selling point. 

Moreno embodies the model immigrant story. Through her success, but more importantly through her struggle, we see the complexities of the American Dream narrative. She is the poor girl who moved from Puerto Rico to New York City for a better life and became an icon for the Latinx community. But she has also suffered abuse and been shut out of opportunities simply because of her identity. Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It ponders what would Moreno have been able to accomplish without these barriers that are put in front of women and people of color. Through rampant sexism and racist stereotypes, Moreno’s star shined as she refused to be boxed in and blazed a trail for many others after her who will one day know no such barriers.

Dir: Mariem Pérez Riera

Prod: Brent Miller, Mariem Pérez Riera, Ilia J. Vélez Dávila