In the Heights 2021 Movie Review
You can measure the start of summer by Memorial Day or the solstice or however you like. I’m going with the release of “In the Heights.”
It is a joyous movie, a musical based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway hit, as warm and welcome as sunshine. If Miranda’s “Hamilton” is a groundbreaking reworking of history through a hip-hop lens, forcing us to look at the Founding Fathers in a different light while singing along, then “In the Heights” is a more personal work. It’s the story of a neighborhood — Washington Heights, in Manhattan — and the people who don’t just live there but bring the place to life as an extended family. It’s a mixing pot of cultures and rhythms and foods and clubs and, most importantly, dreams.
If that all sounds like generic plot devices tossed into a stew of song and dance, so what? Director Jon M. Chu, who brought so much visual energy and fun to “Crazy Rich Asians,” does something similar here. And as with that film, he does not let the excitement overpower the underlying messages of identity and the struggle against bigotry.
Usnavi’s bodega is the hub of ‘In the Heights’ activity
The film centers on Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs a neighborhood bodega that serves as a community hub. It seems as if everyone is in and out of the place at some point. He dreams of returning one day to the Dominican Republic and restoring his dilapidated childhood home, but it’s complicated. He also dreams of Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who may or may not have similar feelings for Usnavi. Vanessa, too, dreams of bigger things as she works as a hairdresser; she wants to be a designer.
Then there is Benny (Corey Hawkins), a friend of Usnavi. His former girlfriend Nina (Leslie Grace) is back from Stanford, not sure if she’s going to return, despite the sacrifices made by her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits). He owns a car-delivery company — and he’s Benny’s boss.
Nina shoulders much of the film’s take on social justice. She was of course thrilled to be accepted at Stanford, less so at the price tag. But it’s not just the cost. It’s the way she’s treated there — as a woman of color in a largely white community that doesn’t quite know what to do with her.
Yet she also symbolizes the dreams of the neighborhood. She got out, made it to something bigger, better. It’s a heavy burden, and it’s left her confused and unsettled.
There are many more strands of plot. In one, Usnavi sells a winning lottery ticket at the bodega. The winner’s identity isn’t known, which leads to the biggest production number in the film — a song-and-dance extravaganza at a public pool called “96,000.” That’s the amount of the payout; several characters muse about what they might do with the money.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has a small role selling shave ice
It’s a magical scene (magical realism colors several scenes). It touches on, again, dreams — what each of the characters will do with their winnings. Yet it also has a bittersweet undercurrent. Someone has the winning ticket, but not everyone’s dreams can come true.
Some can. That’s the hope that fuels the film. And sometimes the reality is not quite what you hoped for. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it’s not.
Miranda has a small role, pushing a shaved-ice cart and competing against the Mister Softee guy. (Miranda played Usnavi in the original Broadway production.) The performances are uniformly strong, though Ramos is particularly affecting. He’s the soul of the neighborhood and the soul of the film; he dreams big but he’s grounded in reality in a way not everyone is.
Is “In the Heights” a great movie? Not really. It’s shot more cinematically than “Hamilton” was — it is a movie version of a musical, not a musical filmed for a movie. Even with the social justice issues it addresses, it doesn’t carry the weight of Miranda’s later work.
But he gives us the blueprint here, both musically and as a vehicle for telling stories of people who are not often heard, and never heard loudly enough. It doesn’t have to be a great movie. It’s a great experience, like a beautiful summer day.