I wouldn’t be surprised if I keep going back to In the Heights as one of the best films of 2021 because of what it represents. Originally scheduled for summer 2020, the film was delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet it feels even more immediate because of its emphasis on community and what we owe to each other. After a year of being separated, Jon. M Chu’s adaptation Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony-winning Broadway musical feels like a rich experience of a community coming together over a shared heritage intertwined with their individual dreams. In a time where it feels like we’re more separated than ever, not just from those who disagree with us but even our friends and family, In the Heights is a glowing celebration of how even when we forge our own path we’re never alone when we’re supported by our communities. Chu taps into that deep, earnest love of a place and the people that populate it, and then goes wild with musical numbers that make you want to get out of your seat and cheer. If ever there was a movie that demanded people get back to the theater post-pandemic, In the Heights is it.
The film opens with bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) regaling a group of children with a tale about a land called Washington Heights, and from here, it’s more of an ensemble piece following a group of dreamers. Usnavi dreams of getting back to his father’s homeland of the Dominican Republic and running a bar by the sea. His crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) works in a nail salon, but dreams of getting away from the barrio so she can study fashion. Meanwhile, Usnavi’s friend Nina (Leslie Grace) has just returned from her first semester at Stanford, but now wants to drop out and stay home, much to the chagrin of her hard-working and cash-strapped father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), although she also catches the eye of her old flame, Benny (Corey Hawkins). These young characters and their friends all have a place in the home of Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who doesn’t have children of her own, but has made it a point to look after the people of the neighborhood. With a blackout looming on the horizon on the hottest days of summer, Washington Heights feels like it’s at turning point, not just for its residents, but for the neighborhood as a whole.
If you’re looking for In the Heights to be like Miranda’s massive hit Hamilton, you’ll really only find similarities in the style of music as Miranda uses his wide swath of musical knowledge to create something original and heartfelt. But whereas Hamilton benefits from the driving force of history and a strong central protagonist, In the Heights is a looser affair. While there’s the threat of gentrification, it doesn’t manifest in a single character or situation. The conflict for these characters is internal and relational, and by exploring that conflict In the Heights has its own beautiful personality where Miranda defies the typical young immigrant or first-generation American story.
You can see this clearly in what’s happening with Nina. Nina’s path is clearly laid out for her where her father worked hard and scarified so that his daughter, who also worked hard, could go to an elite university, which would then open new doors for her. But Nina is drawn back to her block and the people within it. She refuses to be placed into a single inspirational narrative, and we see that Kevin’s dream can’t simply be his daughter’s dream. In the Heights is constantly interrogating the notion of what a “better life” means in terms of aspiration, and it keeps coming back to restoration of a community. The vivacity of In the Heights comes not from grasping at a brass ring, but through embrace of the neighborhood and its residents.
The script has also been updated somewhat since its 2008 Broadway run, and while some of the changes are fun and minor (Usnavi making a John Wick reference, for instance), you can also feel the potency when his cousin, friend, and co-worker Sonny says, “They’re kicking out all the dreamers,” a line that would feel corny if you didn’t look at it in its larger context. While Usnavi, Vanessa, and Nina are small-d “dreamers”, Sonny is a Dreamer—a reference to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy which affects people like Sonny who were brought here illegally when they were children but know no other home than America. This film was made in 2019 when there was a very real possibility (and remains a very real possibility depending on who’s in the White House in the future) that Dreamers would be deported, not only denied the American dream, but kicked out of their home. In the Heights isn’t a DACA movie—Sonny’s plotline is one of many—but it emphasizes that community isn’t just something that gives its people strength; it’s also something that can be under siege by those who wish to exploit fear and division.
But In the Heights refuses to take a defensive crouch. Every single musical number explodes off the screen thanks to Chu’s masterful direction. The musical is already a fantastical genre since people don’t burst into song and choreographed dance numbers. Chu treats every number like it’s a showstopper while still giving the scene its own flavor. He’s unafraid to weave in animation or CGI or turn the world on its side if need be. And yet at the same time, Chu is confident enough to add small details that add to the overall flavor of a scene without distraction from the central action. You can see this in the numbers where Christopher Scott’s excellent choreography is used by background actors to keep the energy pulsing throughout the scene. Chu brings it all together to make you invested in this world and its people.
He’s also helped by a knockout cast that feels like a launching pad for multiple stars. Ramos easily glides into the role that Miranda played in the Broadway production, but he’s also surrounded by a terrific array of rising stars. You can’t help but be allured by Melissa Barrera as Vanessa and her character’s desire to reach her goals while also trying to keep people at a distance. While the love story between Usnavi and Vanessa is good, the chemistry between Hawkins and Grace crackles off the screen, and you can’t help but root for these two young people to get together. And then there’s the older members of the cast with Olga Merediz serving as the beating heart and moral compass of the piece as Abuela Claudia with her stunning solo number.
In the Heights is one of those movies that grabs you from the start, and it never relinquishes the pride of its place. The movie will causally slip between English and Spanish without always giving the audience’s English-only speakers the benefit of subtitles. It makes these decisions not to be exclusionary, but because it has such a strong embrace of the Spanish-speaking people and culture depicted. Chu has a different background, and yet he demonstrates a total understanding of the importance of what Miranda sought to convey with his musical. As a white viewer born in Minnesota and raised in Atlanta, I don’t come from the places depicted in In the Heights, and yet I deeply respect and admire what Chu and Miranda have crafted here and the people they seek to celebrate.
If I have one issue with In the Heights, it’s that I didn’t get to see it in a packed theater. This is a movie that demands not only a big screen, but a room full of people to share in the musical experience. It looked great on my TV, and I’m sure those who have HDR will appreciate the look of the film should they choose to watch it on HBO Max. But if you’re fully vaccinated by the time the film opens, I can’t recommend a theatrical experience enough. I know that I’ll be going to the loudest theater I can find so that I can lose myself in a magical land called “Washington Heights.”
Time to “Git Gud” once again.
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