In the Heights Review

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: Taking place in New York's Washington Heights, the story follows Dreamers young and old as they navigate a changing world, trying to live their best lives while holding on to their heritage and honoring the people who wanted the best for them. 

REVIEW: Few movies have been so perfect for the moment as In the Heights is for right now. After many people being away from movie theaters for over a year, the time is coming to head back into that dark room and let your cares wash away in the bright light of a massive movie screen. While so much being offered right now will get the job done – with people and creatures of varying sizes punching each other repeatedly – In the Heights is a bright, colorful, inspirational and sensational musical that can also count itself as the perfect tonic for the theater-deprived soul, reaffirming with show-stopping spirit why the movies are such a magical place at all.

Adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ acclaimed stage musical (the book for the musical and the adapted script for the movie by Hudes; Miranda on the music and lyrics), In the Heights tells an encompassing – if admittedly a little crowded – story centering on the primarily Latinx community of Washington Heights, focusing on dreamers of all ages as they hustle and grind to make a name for themselves and their community. At the focal point are Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner who is saving up to buy his father’s old bar in the Dominican Republic; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a beauty shop worker trying to get an apartment in the city and be a fashion designer; Nina (Leslie Grace), who is just returning from school in Stanford, but has decided to drop out due to financial strain and forced to feel like the outcast from other students and; Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works at Nina’s father’s taxi cab dispatch, using it as his way to speak to and give back to his community.

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Together their interweaving stories and dreams reflect the array of themes – including heritage and the struggle to maintain it, immigration, gentrification and so much more. It’s a crowded plate with so much to say and from so many characters, and for the most part, Hudes’ script and Jon M. Chu’s direction do a fantastic job keeping it all balanced in between the musical numbers. Chu propels himself off his stylish hit Crazy Rich Asians, diving back into his musical roots (Step Up 2: The Streets, Jem and the Holograms), bringing out the light and music of the streets of the Heights, showcased with pulse-pounding energy in the opening number, “In the Heights,” with most of the ensemble getting in on the show. As Usnavi tells a group of children during a flash-forward, the streets are alive with music, with Chu using this small area of New York to feel massive in scale, rich in soul thanks to those who live there doing what they can to live the American Dream.

While you’re unlucky enough to have to settle for reading about my experience, I cannot emphasize enough the joy I felt seeing such a visually marvelous tapestry of rhythm and charm come to life, on the big screen, for the first time in over a year. From the moment the first music hits – as Ramos spits out Miranda’s now-instantly-recognizable flow of lyrics like he was born to it – continuing to Hawkins’ lively performance of “Benny’s Dispatch”, Grace’s heartbreaking “Breathe” and into more high points like “96,000”, the sheer volume of colorful energy Chu extracts from each number is uniquely electrifying in ways no other movie – coming at this moment – will ever be able to match. So much of that comes from a mixture of brilliant choreography and the impressiveness of the cast. Ramos is sure to be a leading man on the rise after such incredible work here, while Hawkins, Grace and Barrera showcase their range of pipes with work that gives Heights a consistent beating heart.

But as much as they are the stars, the supporting players – like Jimmy Smit’s as Nina’s father Kevin, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela, the beauty shop owner leaving the Heights to open a new store – can often steal the show. Among them all, the winner of the whole show – and hopefully destined for Oscar gold – is Olga Merediz as “Abuela” Claudia, the woman who has spent years taking care of people in the Heights by opening up her home and kitchen to anyone who needs it. A heartwarming performance in the truest sense of the word, she will take your breath away with her solo musical performance of “Paciencia y Fe”, recounting her immigrant experience from Cuba. While other numbers make use of the city as it is, this one finds Chu and the team making use of the subway, transporting it and you back to a different era, making use of a kaleidoscope of color, emphasizing the passion coming from Merediz’s performance. So many of Heights’ numbers will light a fire in your belly, but no one and nothing will bring you to tears like Merediz.

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With the cast and musical numbers operating on the highest of points, if the movie does sag, it’s because there's so much story to tell from numerous characters' perspectives. The movie indeed bursts from the seams with love for various heritages coming together to form into a community, but not every story feels as fleshed out as others, with some characters and issues feeling skirted over in the name of the positive, hopeful message. For all the issues regarding gentrification and Trump’s America looking to strip rights away from Dreamers, the more serious notes don’t hit as hard as the more inspirational ones. As for characters, Vanessa, in particular, feels a bit left out from the more focused arcs of, say, Usnavi and Nina. Even the romance between Vanessa and Usnavi feels rushed to its conclusion, and though the two bring their own brand of fire to the movie, together their romance falls a little flat. That heartwarming romance is especially forgettable compared to Benny and Nina’s, culminating in the arresting “When the Sun Goes Down,” which operates like a blend of classical movie musical dances and Inception-level visuals.

With so much love for the characters and where they live at the forefront of everything, the filmmakers trying to keep a consistent narrative rhythm is not quite as successful as maintaining the musical ones. I felt myself not exactly lost in the shuffle, but rather looking for deeper meaning below the surface of their unique experiences, which made the nigh-2.5-hour runtime feel long in the tooth. While no angle feels truly forgotten, everything is only just so effective at digging deep into themes revolving around these communities being at risk, with the numbers themselves picking everything back up for a needed dose of inspiration. But even if those narrative elements don’t shine as brightly as the show-stopping numbers, there is enough heart and soul to make up for the shortcomings, to where I have no doubt you’ll find yourself invested with almost everyone who makes it onto the screen.

There are plenty of movies that demand being seen on the big screen, but none in the last year more so than In the Heights. Truly, I beg you to go see this triumphant musical on the biggest screen and with the best audio you can. Numbers that range from inspirational to hilarious and then to heartfelt will be coursing through every chair in every isle, and the kind of social experience movies offer, coupled with this story of a shared community coming together to stare down the odds, will be unlike anything you’ll be apart of this year. On top of all that, it’s just an often stunning musical in its own right, overcoming its flaws one marvelous set-piece after another, fueled by performers bringing every ounce of passion they have.


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