In the Heights (2021)
Turn Up the Volume on Your Dreams
As a massive fan of big flashy musicals, seeing the loud, colorful, exuberant In the Heights at the theatre really felt like a homecoming of sorts, chiefly after the long hiatus that was most of 2020. Adapted from the 2008 Broadway musical of the same name by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the guy behind the juggernaut Hamilton, and based on a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes (who gets a solo credit for the film’s screenplay), In the Heights is a joyous celebration of the lives, loves, and dreams of the diverse Latinx community of Washington Heights, the uppermost part of the New York City borough of Manhattan. In the Heights tackles universal themes of family, hope, and identity while showcasing customs and characters that define the ethnic New York City neighborhood where it’s set, mostly made up of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean.
In the Heights is basically the story of a block that’s on the verge of disappearing. It takes place over the course of three sweltering summer days, just before a blackout blankets the neighborhood in darkness, and follows a large number of characters that are chasing a better life, who have different dreams and aspirations, and are searching for what ‘home’ means to them.
The movie opens with our lead and narrator, Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who’s telling his account to a group of children on an idyllic beach. It’s the tale of his ‘sueñito’ or ‘little dream.’ The story begins days before Usnavi, who’s the owner of a small bodega in Washington Heights, is preparing to move to the Dominican Republic to revive his dad’s broken-down bar, which he plans on naming El Sueñito, seeing as it’s always been his ‘little dream’ to move back to the country where he spent the ‘best days’ of his youth.
The flick kicks off with an extended musical number where we meet all our main players. There’s Usnavi’s love interest, a stunningly beautiful salon-girl named Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who catches the eye of every guy she passes and has her own dream of moving downtown to join the fashion industry. Working at the corner store with Usnavi is his smart 16-year-old cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), an undocumented immigrant living in America whose future is uncertain given that he’s not allowed several basic amenities, including the ability to get a driver’s license or go to college.
We also have Usnavi’s charming best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), a radio operator at the nearby taxi dispatch named Rosario’s, owned by respected Puerto Rican businessman Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). See, this is a special time for Kevin because his beloved straight-A-student daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) is returning home from California after spending a year studying at Stanford University. Nina, however, who’s admired by everyone in the barrio, is feeling a little nervous about being back, reluctant to tell her father that she’s dropped out of college due to experiencing prejudice and racism by the privileged white folk who attend. Lastly, there’s Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz reprising her role from the stage production), the loving matriarch and ‘grandmother’ of the Heights and the heart of the neighborhood, who raised Usnavi after his parents passed away.
All these threads come together when Usnavi learns that he’s sold a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000, enough money to make everyone’s dream become a reality. It’s interesting to note that there’s also no real antagonist in the movie, only the internal struggle that our characters face regarding the path they wish to follow. This keeps the film positive and upbeat while still exploring some serious subject matter. Directed by Jon M. Chu, who did wonders for Asian representation in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, the film addresses immigration and the idea of the American dream in bright, uplifting ways, the bulk of the narrative sung-and-rapped through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s catchy hip-hop lyrics.
Chu’s work on Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) and Step Up 3D (2010) has clearly helped in bringing this musical to life as the film features some of the best musical moments I’ve seen in a movie, ever (there’s dancing on the streets, underwater, even on the side of a building). The highlight is ‘96,000,’ a phenomenal sequence that brings the cast together at the Highbridge Park public pool where everyone in the block expresses how they’d spend the cash if they’d won the lottery; it’s a vivid, high-spirited number that’ll lift anyone’s spirits — propulsive poolside bopping, synchronized swimmers, and that blistering summer feeling, what more could you ask for? Moreover, the vibrant 8-minute opening, where we’re introduced to the district, is also terrific; so, too, is ‘When You’re Home,’ a romantic ditty Nina and Benny sing as they take a tour of the neighborhood and reminisce about their youth.
Additionally, we’re treated to a brava one-take between Usnavi and Vanessa with ‘Champagne,’ and a tribute to the hardships of migrant life with Claudia’s touching ‘Paciencia y Fe.’ Some tracks have multiple meanings, such as ‘Blackout,’ where folks sing about having no power and being powerless as a collective people. And, bar the exception of a sweaty fiesta party at a salsa club, all of these musical numbers, while fantastical, fit naturally into the grounded narrative. On top of the magnetic music and superb direction, these sequences are enhanced by the first-rate choreography by Christopher Scott, Step Up Revolution (2010), and gorgeous cinematography by Alice Brooks.
Although Lin-Manuel has recently come under fire for not casting any dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in leading roles, the cast is still sprawling and diverse, each player a star. Anthony Ramos, Hamilton (2020), is magnetic and mega-likable as the Dominican dreamer Usnavi, a role played by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the original production. Melissa Barrera, Vida (2018-2020), delivers a movie-star making turn as Vanessa, the uptown gal with downtown aspirations, and makes for such a convincing ‘dream girl’ it’s a wonder Usnavi, or anyone else for that matter, can get anything done. Corey Hawkins, Straight Outta Compton (2015), is smooth, sweet, and charming as Benny and shares palpable chemistry with his love interest Leslie Grace’s Nina.
Elsewhere, Daphne Rubin-Vega — best known for her role as Mimi Márquez in the Broadway musical Rent — is energetic as the gossiping Daniela, the owner of a popular salon that’s moving shop to the Bronx because of skyrocketing rent prices in Manhattan. Stephanie Beatriz, Short Term 12 (2013), is fun as Daniela’s friend and sassy salon hairstylist Carla, who makes it her business to know everyone else’s, whilst Dascha Polanco, Joy (2015), has a great time as another salon girl, Cuca, a vivacious brand-new character created for the film. Oh, and keep an eye out for Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Poppins Returns (2018), who portrays the owner of a small piragua (a Puerto Rican shaved ice dessert) stand who’s in constant competition with the corporate Mister Softie ice-cream truck.
A true cinematic triumph, In the Heights is a captivating, catchy musical that’s bound to strike a chord with audiences around the world. The film has excellent replay value; so while its characters may be desperate to leave their neighborhood behind, I’m happy to revisit this block and these people time and time again (I’ve seen the film twice already and can easily go a third), knowing that they’ll always be there waiting for me, ready to brighten up my day whenever I need it most.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)