In the Heights. 2021
Directed by Jon. M Chu
Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Gregory Diaz IV, Dascha Polanco, Marc Anthony, Ariana Greenblatt, and Noah Catala.
The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop. The likeable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.
Set over the course of three blazing hot days in the titular Washington Heights of New York, a neighborhood-wide blackout occurs. And while there naturally is some panic as various characters try to regroup, In the Heights (based on Lin Manuel Miranda’s award-winning Broadway adaptation of Quiara Alegría Hudes’s novel, with the latter also penning the script for Step Up and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu) is a story about community. There may be unrest, but people shoot off fireworks into the sky to light the way home or towards loved ones. However, communities such as this are often overlooked and inevitably gentrified, so the idea of lighting up the sky with one’s own means to battle a power outage also comes across as an inspirational act of resiliency.
Dreamers also need plenty of resiliency, and everyone will a job in the Heights has one of those. If there is a main character among the incredibly talented ensemble, it’s Usnavi de la Vega (named after one of the first things his parents saw crossing over into America emigrating from the Dominican Republic, a U.S. Navy ship), who dreams of returning home and fixing up the place. Playing the part Lin Manuel Miranda did on Broadway, Anthony Ramos superbly takes on the role of the bodega owner at a crossroads in life, working alongside his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who dreams of going to college someday). Usnavi also happens to have a crush on Vanessa (the absolutely radiant and admirably independent Melissa Barrera), who dreams of moving into the city and becoming a fashion designer.
Everyone seems to be planning their escape. Meanwhile, Nina (Leslie Grace) did get away for a college education at Stanford and is the first member of her family to do so. She’s also back in the Heights after the semester, reconnecting with her somewhat estranged ex-boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins). There’s just one big problem; not only did she face several hardships and racism as part of her experience, but she is also dropping out and sneakily ensuring that her father Kevin (the always reliable Jimmy Smits), who runs a local business, is too late to make the next payments. Obviously, she genuinely feels shame about this. She tries to hide her failings to the best of her abilities, trying to figure out what’s next and what she is meant for, nonetheless making for an engrossing character arc.
Reprising her award-winning role from the play, Olga Merediz’s Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia also acts as a matriarchal figure over the Heights, looking after Usnavi following his lost parents. She’s practically a sage with much wisdom to impart, also with a heart of gold. Disagreements and conflict arise all over the Heights as the temperature continues to heat up, and she’s right there grounding everyone while also getting a number of her own detailing a hard-working backstory.
It should go without saying that the rap heavy lyrics (some of which are reworked as the plot appears to differ from the stage musical) are exceptional. Most importantly, the cast delivers every song with all the required energy matching up with the lusciously bright color palette. In one of the strongest song and dance numbers, it’s learned that someone has a winning lottery ticket for $96,000, allowing everyone their own time to express what they would do with the money. The setting for this is a public swimming pool featuring an outstanding array of colors from swimsuits (the costume design is especially outstanding throughout), complete with background dancers twisting through the air and sometimes diving into the water. It’s one of the most alive segments in the entire movie.
There’s also an imaginative, somewhat magical dancing scene that is mesmerizing and invigorating; one can’t help but feel there’s also a missed opportunity to take greater advantage of film as an entertainment medium bringing these incredible songs to life with even more fervor and excitement. Still, Jon M. Chu strikes a wonderful balance between giving the Heights a striking beauty that fits within the reality of an impoverished neighborhood on the verge of gentrification.
At its core, In the Heights is a grandiose love story about people on different paths that sometimes don’t catch on to what they already have. Now the tale comes with an added framing device of Usnavi passing down the story to a group of children, further enforcing the film’s themes of immigrants leaving their mark and finding small but significant ways to assert themselves with dignity. There’s a bit of a lull for a bit in the middle. Sometimes, it can be a sensory overload with the simultaneous onslaught of rapping, gorgeous visuals, and social relevance, but hardly something that hurts the experience as a whole. In the Heights is another hypnotic and fascinating trailblazing musical from Lin Manuel Miranda translated to the screen, with film and songs deserving of ending up on repeat.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com