Movie Review: In the Heights
By Matthew Huntley
June 24, 2021
There are several reasons why Lin-Manuel Miranda is so appealing as an artist and entertainer, but to me, and specifically when it comes to Miranda’s talents as a writer, it’s his ability to infuse his musical stories with a relative amount of credibility and rawness. While many musicals are enjoyable purely for their romanticism, ostentation, and frivolity, the inherently fanciful nature of the genre makes it prone to create a certain distance between the characters on stage (or on film) and the audience watching them. Oftentimes, this separation prevents us from fully accepting what happens as significant or meaningful, and therefore the story and people don’t resonate with us long after the curtain closes, or the movie theater lights come up.
Miranda, however, has found a way to bridge this divide and it’s obviously not just one quality of his work that makes this happen. I’m sure it’s a combination of the modern and/or still relevant narrative material; the brazen, punchy song lyrics; the diversity of the cast and characters; the ceaseless energy; etc. Whatever the reasons, Miranda’s musicals are alive and full-blooded, and it’s no wonder audiences the world over have responded so enthusiastically to them.
While it may be impossible for Miranda to ever top or be better known for something more than “Hamilton,” his and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “In the Heights” actually arrived on Broadway first by nearly 10 years, and even though it may be inevitable this preceding effort will forever live in the shadow cast by “Hamilton,” it’s not long into the film adaptation of “In the Heights” that we experience and appreciate it on its own terms. In fact, as early as the opening number, we shed our urge to roll our eyes at it for heeding the potentially tired and cheesy tropes of overt romance and “chasing after one’s dreams,” which are all too common motifs in musicals of this sort.
But what’s notable about “In the Heights” is it strives to be uncommon and manages, for the most part, to make its familiar themes feel genuine and relatable, probably because its characters seem so real and down to earth. And despite the story adhering to a tried-and-true structure, the film owns and runs (or should I say dances) with it.
Things kick off in typical yet exuberant musical fashion, with the introductory sequence giving us a high-level overview of the major players—all of whom are of either Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Dominican descent—and their dilemmatic situations. The main character, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), while sitting on a tropical, white sand beach, relates the story of him chasing after his “sueñito,” or “little dream,” to his young daughter (Olivia Perez) and her little friends. Usnavi lets on that his dream, like so many others living in the hot, crowded and rent-rising Washington Heights district of upper Manhattan in New York City, involved leaving and venturing off somewhere else, and it would seem, given his current location, he achieved just that.
Flashback a few years and as the aptly titled “In the Heights” song bursts onto the soundtrack, we see Usnavi running the corner bodega left to him by his late father, even though it’s this ambitious, hard-working kid’s goal to revive his pop’s hurricane-stricken bar in their native Dominican Republic. Usnavi is smart enough to know such an endeavor would take lot of work and entail leaving behind his family and friends, including his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), to whom Usnavi has become a surrogate father and mentor, but Usnavi’s lawyer-friend Alejandro (Mateo Gómez) tells him it’s possible and Usnavi is convinced this is what he wants.
As “In the Heights” continues, somewhat methodically, it introduces us to the other locals and Usnavi’s daily customers. The kind-hearted, round-faced Abuela (Olga Merediz) is the childless matriarch who unofficially raised many of the neighborhood kids as her own, including Usnavi. In her older age, she takes extra comfort in the company of friends, family, and her native Cuba’s cultural traditions, not least it’s appetizing cuisine.
Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) is a widower and owner of a taxi company whose business is struggling, which makes it difficult for him to pay the tuition that would allow his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) to keep on attending Stanford University all the way in California. It’s just as well, though, since Nina is feeling the pressure of being labeled the only Heights native who “got out” and later admits to facing discrimination on campus.
Nina’s coming back to the Heights for the summer, when NYC is just days away from a citywide blackout, is bittersweet for Benny (Corey Hawkins), who’s still in love with Nina after they broke up before her departure to the West Coast. Benny currently works for Kevin and is worried not only about his job’s future but how to reconcile his unrequited love for Nina.
And speaking of unrequited love, it’s no secret Usnavi has long been infatuated with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who makes ends meet by working with the gossipy, libidinous ladies down at the local salon. But Vanessa’s own “sueñito” is to be a fashion designer and she thinks it all hinges on her securing a studio to rent. Of course, like all the characters in “In the Heights,” and so many in others in similar fables, Vanessa will likely realize everything she needs may be right in front of her.
Given the genre, the characters and their situations, and the relationships between them, it probably goes without saying how things will ultimately transpire in “In the Heights,” and despite its overall predictability, Hudes and Miranda’s screenplay, adapted from their own play, deserves praise for interweaving its multiple storylines coherently so that each has weight and dimension. And with strong performances from the varied cast, we come to genuinely care about these people for their humility, honesty, and vulnerability. It’s this type of connection I alluded to earlier that allows us to consider the story and people from “In the Heights” on a deeper level, to relate to their struggles, and to ascribe meaning to them beyond the exaggerated song and dance sequences.
With that said, though, the song and dance sequences are quite spectacular and invigorating and there’s an undeniable energy coursing throughout this vast production’s veins. And yet, for all its vibrating colors and imagery, constant rapidity, and impressive showmanship, “In the Heights” never feels over-the-top or discombobulating. Manuel’s music and lyrics help ground it and director Jon M. Chu is mindful to imbue each scene with some type of human emotional element, whether it stems from comedy, drama, romance, or even action.
As a result, no matter what his happening on-screen, we feel it’s within reason and an extension of the characters’ real world and feelings. This is the type of movie that could have come off as a mere exhibition of its budget and resources, but the collective efforts of Miranda, Chu, choreographer Christopher Scott, editor Myron Kerstein, and production designer Nelson Coates, not to mention thousands of others, make us believe the filmmakers were in sync and focused. They show control and give the movie time to collect itself so there’s a balance between the real and the fantastic.
While we’re onboard with “In the Heights” for most of its two-hour-plus runtime, there does come a point when the movie, for all its virtues, feels longer than necessary. By the end, we’re somewhat drained and it’s hard to pinpoint why. Individually, each scene has value and resonance, but collectively, perhaps they give us too much to watch, listen to, and process that it comes across as overkill.
For me, this exhaustion came about toward the end when the salon ladies—Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Cuca (Dascha Polanco), and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz)—work to reignite the passion of the Heights neighborhood by singing and dancing to “Carnaval del Barrio” to remind the locals what Caribbean peoples do when the going gets tough. I understand it’s an important moment for all the characters, but perhaps some additional trims throughout the rest of the narrative could have made the movie tighter and leaner by a good 10 minutes, allowing it to go out on a higher, spunkier note.
Still, besides the film slightly overstaying its welcome, there’s a lot to admire about “In the Heights,” both narratively and production-wise. It’s proof that despite the unrealistic expectations or unfair comparisons “Hamilton” may bring to the table, for Lin-Manuel Miranda-produced musicals and others, ambitious productions such as this can clearly carve out their own space in our hearts and minds. After watching this movie, we feel touched, enriched, and unified by the world of Washington Heights and its people, and what’s more, this feeling endures well after the movie theater lights have come back on.