In the Heights

Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay: Quiara Alegría Hudes (ased on the musical stageplay by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes)
Stars: Anthony Ramos (Usnavi), Melissa Barrera (Vanessa), Leslie Grace (Nina Rosario), Corey Hawkins (Benny), Olga Merediz (Abuela Claudia), Jimmy Smits (Kevin Rosario), Gregory Diaz IV (Sonny), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Daniela), Stephanie Beatriz (Carla), Dascha Polanco (Cuca), Noah Catala (Graffiti Pete), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Piragüero)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: U.S.
Country: U.S.
In the Heights
In the Heights

Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s 2007 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical In the Heights is set over three hot summer days in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan that is home to a large Latinx immigrant population, primarily Dominicans. The story, which is told in the now-familiar-because-of-Hamilton mix of dialogue, rap, and Broadway-style pop tunes, centers on a group of interrelated characters, each of whom is facing an uncertain future that will come to define them and their identities as first-generation Americans bearing the baggage of immigrant ethnicity (the musical was obviously written before the Trump presidency, but it feels particularly attuned to its aftermath and the residual antagonism it enflamed against people of color and immigrants).

The central character and narrator is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young man in his late 20s who runs a small corner bodega (grocery store) and dreams of saving enough money to return to the Dominican Republic and reopen his father’s beachside restaurant and bar, which was destroyed in a hurricane. Usnavi runs the bodega with his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who doesn’t understand Usnavi’s desire to leave the U.S. Across the street from Usnavi’s bodega is a cab company owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who takes great pride in his assimilation into the world of American business and prizes his daughter Nina’s (Leslie Grace) having gotten into Stanford. As the first in the neighborhood to “make it” outside the neighborhood, Nina feels a great deal of pressure to perform as the “model immigrant,” and there are suggestions that it is more than she can (or wants to) bear. Other characters include Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works at Kevin’s cab company and used to be involved with Nina, and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an ambitious hairstylist (and object of Usnavi’s romantic longing) who dreams of being a fashion designer, but finds that most doors outside the Heights are closed to Latinas without much money.

Each of these characters embodies both a dream that aligns with the anybody-can-make-it-in-America mythos (cue up comparisons to West Side Story’s cynical showstopper “In America”) and the harsh realities of what it takes to move past the lowest economic rungs of the ladder. Even those who are financially successful, including Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the flamboyant owner and operator of the salon where Vanessa works, and the Piragüero (Lin-Manuel Miranda) who sells flavored ice on the street, are being squeezed by corporate entities, gentrification, and the like. Nothing is easy, but In the Heights strives to be the opposite of a neorealistic downer, instead posing its characters’ social and economic difficulties as longstanding dramatic arcs that simply take on a different resonance given their status as ethnic and racial minorities in a deeply stratified country. Their dreams are familiar to anyone who has ever had dreams of their own, and it is not hard to identify with Usnavi’s sentimental longing for the homeland he left as a small child, Vanessa’a desire to break out and make a name for herself, or Nina’s fear of letting down everyone around her.

And, lest I forget to mention, In the Heights is a musical with more than two dozen musical numbers that mix and merge a wide variety of tones and styles. Chu, who is now best known for his surprise hit Crazy Rich Asians (2018), has a wide ranging filmography that includes action movies like G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) and modern musicals like Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) and Jem and the Holograms (2013) and the concert documentary Justin Bieber’s Believe (2013). Working with choreographer Christopher Scott (Dancing With the Stars, Step Up All In) and cinematographer Alice Brooks (who previously shotJem and the Holograms), Chu gives In the Heights a rich vibrancy and an infectious sense of life. Even though it deals with difficult issues, it never delves too deep and always allows for the possibility of redemption and success. There might be an understandable desire to write it off as shallow or simplistic, but part of its charm is the way it brings together a wide group of people and unites them in both their dreams and their struggles.

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Overall Rating: (3)

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