In the Heights couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. Summer movies, for example, don’t get much more summery than this one, set during a record-breaking heat wave in New York. For another, this vivid screen customization of the Lin-Manuel Miranda stage musical captures something we were largely without for the past year: a joyful sense of togetherness.
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera play Usnavi and Vanessa in the movie In the Heights.
This is the most socially distancing movie I’ve seen in months. The action takes place in crowded shopping aisles and gossip-filled beauty parlors where everyone knows everyone. The musical numbers, which mix hip-hop, Latin pop, salsa and other styles, often spill over into the surrounding neighborhood. The actors become dancers in an exciting street ballet.
Much of this is wrapped up in the film’s riveting opening scene, which takes us to this pan-Latino barrio in Washington Heights. Miranda pops up in a small role as a salesman selling shaved ice from a pushcart, but our real guide to this Upper Manhattan neighborhood is Usnavi de la Vega, played by a great Anthony Ramos.
Usnavi owns a popular corner bodega that is particularly appreciated for its café con leche. As he raps about the challenges of running his shabby little business in a place that’s rapidly thriving, he’s joined by a chorus of neighborhood voices singing about their own struggles to make ends meet.
As much as he loves Washington Heights and the people who live there, Usnavi longs to return to the beaches of the Dominican Republic where he grew up. He hopes his teenage cousin Sonny, played by Gregory Diaz IV, will join him, but Sonny, an undocumented immigrant, dreams of becoming a US citizen in a subplot that echoes recent headlines. One of the more poignant insights from In the Heights is that everyone has a different concept of home.
Usnavi has long been in love with Vanessa, played by an excellent Melissa Barrera, who hopes to move downtown and become a fashion designer. Leslie Grace plays their friend Nina, an academic superstar who has just had a rough year at Stanford, where she feels she doesn’t belong there. But her father, Kevin — a nice fuck from Jimmy Smits — wants Nina to stick with it: If she can’t get out of the Heights and succeed, he thinks, what hope is there for anyone else?
Kevin, who immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico decades ago, runs a taxi company that is one of the few remaining Latino companies in the area. As rents rise and people and businesses are forced to move out of their homes, the community gets a shot of excitement when Usnavi discovers that someone has bought a winning ticket for a $96,000 jackpot from his bodega.
I saw In the Heights on stage in Los Angeles in 2010, and while the screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes made some clever tweaks and tweaks to her original book for the musical, some of the material’s fundamental weaknesses remain here. The various romantic and ambitious subplots are captivating enough, but feel stretched thin at over two hours. Washington Heights looks more alive and direct on screen than on stage, but in some ways the story’s simplistic, relentlessly upbeat nature seems all the more striking.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with staying cheerful for now, and the director Jon M. Chu is quite capable of taking on the task. Chu previously directed Crazy Rich Asians, and he’s good at squeezing resonating ideas about generational conflict and cultural confusion into a convenient, audience-friendly package. It is worth noting that Chu has also made two mentions in the Step up dance film franchise, and while I sometimes wish he would slow down the editing and let the musical numbers breathe more, the sheer dynamism of his filmmaking is hard to resist.
In the Heights maybe not a great movie, but it’s a pretty great movie experience. There are beautiful moments here, such as when Benny and Nina do a surreal, gravity-defying dance along the side of an apartment building. There are also exciting ones, such as when the neighborhood, reeling from a heat-induced blackout, conspires to throw the mother of all block parties.
And there’s a knockout solo from Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood’s adopted grandmother, played by Olga Merediz, who miraculously reprises her Tony-nominated role. Claudia’s big song is called ‘Paciencia y Fe’ or ‘Patience and Faith’, values she has clung to since she moved from Cuba in the 1940s. She is the living embodiment of the loving and enduring spirit of this film.