Pulitzer prize winning playwrights Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes bring their Broadway hit, In the Heights, to the big screen with smashing success. Its heartfelt testament to New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, diverse residents, and vibrant culture is an absolute joy to behold. The story follows a group of tight-knit dreamers over several days on their beloved city block. They sing, dance, and rap their way from corner store bodegas through hydrant-spewing streets. Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) brilliantly captures the magic of the musical without missing a beat or step.
In the Heights has four primary characters that grew up together under the loving care of Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a kind woman who had no children, but kept a watchful eye on the block’s youth. Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) lost his parents at an early age. He owns the corner bodega, but dreams of returning to his father’s dilapidated bar in the Dominican Republic. He’s enamored with the beautiful Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a nail salon worker and struggling fashion designer desperate to move downtown. Nina (Leslie Grace) was the smartest kid on the block. She got accepted to Stanford. Fulfilling the hopes of her immigrant father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), the owner of a livery car service. Then we have Benny (Corey Hawkins), he works as a dispatcher for Kevin, and has always been smitten by Nina.
The majority of the plot takes place over three scorching summer days preceding a citywide blackout. Usnavi has finally saved enough to buy back his father’s beachfront Caribbean bar. Nina returns home after a horrible freshman year at Stanford. Where she faced constant discrimination as a poor Boricua girl. Vanessa has the money to get a studio apartment in the West Village, but cannot pass the credit and earnings check. Benny senses Nina is hiding something. She doesn’t know that her father has leveraged his business to pay her expensive tuition. All worlds collide as the intense heat and raw emotions lead to a series of life-changing events for the group.
In the Heights is a stellar Hamilton follow-up from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who produces and has a small supporting role as a piragua (flavored shaved ice) seller. The musical numbers are well-executed with lavish, stunning choreography. They range from intimate apartment settings to multiple streets where the entire neighborhood participates. It helps to have Anthony Ramos, who also starred in the theatrical production, as the focal point. He has the dramatic skill and musical talent to anchor any kind of scene. The film never feels bloated because the storyline always reverts to Usnavi’s perspective.
In the Heights celebrates the cultural contributions of its immigrant community. The food, language, fashion, art, and dancing pull from the multi-ethnic soup of Washington Heights. I lived there for eight years. This is the first mainstream film to show the neighborhood’s incredible diversity in a purely positive light. Hollywood rarely portrays Manhattan above 96th street. It’s a completely different ballgame from what’s seen on Friends and Seinfeld reruns. In the Heights will open eyes and hearts to a different experience that’s also uniquely American.
My sole critique for this film is the length. It feels longer than the two hour and thirteen minutes runtime. The singing and dancing is great, but some scenes could have been truncated to help the pacing. This is especially evident in a final act that drags on. In the Heights is produced by 5000 Broadway Productions, Likely Story, and Scott Sanders Productions. It will be released concurrently in theaters and HBO Max on June 10th by Warner Bros.
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