In the Heights was directed by John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and is a feature film adaptation of the beloved Broadway musical by producer and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also created Hamilton). It centers on the neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York, and the Latino community that lives there, particularly one Usnavi, as played by Anthony Ramos. As richer, whiter people move into the neighborhood, many of the people Usnavi has known all his life are preparing to leave, whether to move themselves or their businesses to different neighborhoods, sell those businesses entirely, or – in Usnavi’s case – leave the country to return to the Dominican Republic from whence he emigrated. The salon ladies that work in his neighborhood have been priced out to move to the Bronx, the girl he’s crushing on is hightailing it downtown to pursue a fashion career, and Mr. Rosario (who owns the traffic dispatch) is struggling to hold on so his daughter Nina can finish college. In fact, Nina might be the only person actually running towards home instead of away from it. In short, the block he lives on is quickly disappearing, and it won’t be long before the life he knows is gone forever. But, with a song in their hearts and the future on their minds, Usnavi and his community may just be able to leave their own stamp on the neighborhood of Washington Heights, wrapped in little details, to both build and preserve the legacy of those who came before. This film also stars Melissa Barerra, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Gregory Diaz IV, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Christopher Jackson, and Marc Anthony.
When I first saw In the Heights a little over a month ago at a Mother’s Day screening, I’ll admit to having felt fairly underwhelmed by it. My initial thoughts were that it was far too long, the main plot didn’t really kick in until about halfway through, and then it took forever to wrap up. Plus, the music wasn’t nearly as dynamic or orchestral as I’d been led to believe by the film’s high-energy marketing and trailers, feeling more like the initial idea of what Lin-Manuel Miranda would eventually do with Hamilton, rather than feeling like it belonged in its own story. Some of those thoughts – in part – still hold true in fact (though only partially). The midpoint being treated as the emotional climax of the film does make its placement a bit weird, structurally, and still makes the film itself feel a little bit too long for the story it’s attempting to tell. However, upon my second viewing, just yesterday, most – if not all – of my other thoughts on the film became secondary to what I experienced sitting in a giant movie theater with a big screen and even bigger sound. The initial issues I had with it were notable, but insignificant compared to the sheer joy and energy on the screen. I felt a connection to every character, I understood the point of nearly every song, I enjoyed every single performance, I was fascinated and enamored with absolutely every single element of the costume and production design, and even if the film was a bit too long, I didn’t care. I just enjoyed getting to experience it. It’s not often a second watch assuages my doubts about a first (Quo Vadis, Aida? notwithstanding), but for that to happen here was a real treat.
In the Heights isn’t light on plot because it doesn’t have a story to tell; it’s light because the story it’s telling isn’t about any one character or singular event or journey. It’s about the whole community, about how it was there, how it disappeared, how it’s still kept alive in memory and legacy, by the kind of stamp an entire people can put on a place so that no one forgets about them. I think I missed that the first time, but whilst watching it this time around, that element stuck with me the most. From Usnavi’s dynamic introduction to the world he lives in to the struggles of the people within it, to the final revelations of just what happened to them all, I genuinely felt a connection I couldn’t feel the first time because I was too focused on analyzing whether it was particularly well-shot or well-directed. (And, to be fair, while neither of those elements stick out amongst the wealth of other great things in this movie, they’re good enough that I can’t speak out against them either.) This is a dynamic portrait of the joy of a Latinx neighborhood on fire, and every element of the story is positioned not to make one person the center of it, but to make the neighborhood the center. Everyone, from Usnavi to Vanessa to Nina to Abuela, to Benny, to the salon ladies, has a place in this story. While that may sound like the film stretches its stay a bit, that stay is entirely worthwhile to get the whole picture. This is the story told by the finished photo on top of the box, not just the one puzzle piece that fits in a particular place. To be true, I am not of Latin descent, so I will never know the full joy or disappointment a Latinx person could feel at the outcome of this film, but if I could feel such a connection to this little block in just my second viewing of a single film, I can only imagine what having this beautifully-told story that refuses to engage in stereotypes could do for people who are.
Of course, the music is all brilliant, filled to the brim with clever lyricism (plus mixes between Spanish and English), catchy instrumentation, switches between musical-style singing and rapping that keep nearly every number fresh, and a whole lot of heart, but we already knew that. The impressive part is how the actors in the film manage to shoulder it all without a single moment feeling false despite the occasional dub not quite coming out right. (I’m as big a fan of Les Misérables as anyone, but let’s stop pretending that the sound mixing in Tom Hooper’s 2012 adaptation is particularly great, or that making the actors sing live was all that clever of an idea; dubbing is the way to go for movie musicals, especially physically strenuous ones.) I’m not sure the performance of Anthony Ramos ever blew my mind or even impressed me by any stretch, but he’s perfect for this part, shouldering so much of the story’s greatest weight, it’s a wonder his performance never once quivers at all. (And, of course, shout-out to Lin-Manuel as the Piragua guy. Great stuff.) There’s never really a “moment” for him outside of the intro, but given how much he actually has to do otherwise, that’s something I can live with. The true MVPs of the film, however, despite Anthony Ramos’ ostensible lead, are the women of the block: Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, and especially Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia. (Merediz in particular even has a decent shot at a Supporting Actress nomination if the studio plays its FYC campaign right.) Their performances, along with that of Corey Hawkins – who is quickly becoming a musical secret weapon – are what I kept coming back to every time I thought about the ones I loved the most amongst a host of great ones. Each of their stories is radically different, yet they are all tied together, and the depths to which they are allowed to go should land them some awards attention regardless of the sort of competition they might run into come fall.
In the Heights is a film born of joy and legacy, of pride and perseverance, dare I say it, of Paciencia Y Fe. It is so clearly a labor of love for everyone involved that one can’t help but connect to it at some point in those first several minutes. If you’re just going into it fresh, without ever having known about the musical (as I did the first time), you may find yourself underwhelmed, but trust me, give it another shot, on the biggest screen with the best sound that you can possibly get. This movie demands a theatrical experience and supports the need for it every step of the way. Whether it will have legs enough to meaningfully compete is anyone’s guess, but without a doubt in my mind, this thing will be at the Oscars (hopefully for Costume Design, Production Design, and Sound), and is more than likely the first film of 2021 to have a legitimate shot at landing a nomination for Best Picture of the Year. See it.
I’m giving “In the Heights” a 9.3/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.