“In the Heights” has everyone humming already and with good reason! It’s bold, vibrant, and intoxicating as it sings its universal song. Of course, that’s no surprise with King Midas aka Lin-Manuel Miranda in one of the driver’s seats of this film. Originally written for the stage and based on the book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, Miranda’s vision for the stage version transfers seamlessly over to the silver screen without skipping a beat. And Jon M. Chu who gave us “Crazy Rich Asians,” brings his unique signature flare to boost the story’s decibel level to reach everyone, no matter their heritage or background.
We meet Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) —an interesting name which is charmingly explained later in the film— with the beach in the background as he tells a group of youngsters his life story back in his old neighborhood of Washington Heights, in New York City. Magically, we are transported back in time to Usnavi’s old stomping grounds and his bodega where he pines for the spunky and driven young Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). While Usnavi has dreams of going back to his homeland of the Dominican Republic, Vanessa has her dreams as well—to become a fashion designer. With money as both of their economic barriers, the two push forward in their lives to make their dreams come true.
While Usnavi and Vanessa are our lead characters, almost equally in story and screen time, we meet Nina (Leslie Grace) who, thanks to her father’s (Jimmy Smits) dedication to helping his daughter reach the educational heights he never was able to, she returns home, perhaps permenantly. Benny (Corey Hawkins), is secretly and madly in love with Nina, but their goals may just be too far apart to bring them together. With the matriarch of the family, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) offering sage wisdom and sharing memories, the story unfolds in beautifully synchronized song, dance, and visual aesthetics.
“In the Heights” feels like a touch of every great musical to date, particularly “Hamilton” with the stylized rap songs and beats of the dialogue and edits. Where this film differs, in a positive way, is the grandiose staging of all its musical numbers. The songs capture the moment, but the choreography is visually breathtaking. From taking over city blocks, synchronizing to perfection every step, to a swimming pool scene that may go down in history as one of the best dance scenes, these are the captivating stitches that weave this majestic tapestry together.
It’s not all song and dance, though. The story hits all the right notes as well. Usnavi’s story, while it takes place in a specific neighborhood with his father, an immigrant who brought him to the city to provide more opportunities, it’s a common one that resonates with many. Ramos’s portrayal of this young man is an engaging one as he pulls us emotionally into his life. His charm and innocence of youth with his hopes and dreams brings us all back to a point in life where we looked ahead, striving for more. That is the common theme with all of the young characters—they want to escape their current environment, but need that firm foundation to support them. Vanessa punctuates this lesson as she attempts to gain an education and fit in with those who have had more privilege. And Nina, pushing her father away, finds that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side as she feels out of place away at college. To its slight detriment, we really have two main stories which compete with one another for time, but eventually meld together.
In many ways, “In the Heights” is a coming of age movie told with the perspective of hindsight. The multiple viewpoints, from a grandmother or father to youngsters listening to Usnavi’s tall tale, give it incredible depth. And within this complete circle, we peel away the layers as it eloquently addresses the injustices of wealth and poverty, opportunity and oppression, and racism. It’s a finely tuned and balanced work of art, that expresses a socially relevant story, but also one that is universally understood.
Within this complex story, these actors effortlessly sing and dance. Ramos’s athleticism is captivating as he leaps, bounds, flips, and spins to the music. Barrera and Grace are equally beautiful as they powerfully step to that complicated beat. While the singing and dancing are an integral part of the film, the acting must reach that same high bar. Ramos is exceptional which is no surprise, and the supporting cast does not disappoint. Hawkins is also a standout with his performance as the sweet young man whose expressive eyes give you a glimpse into his heart, one which beats solely for Nina. And Merediz, who played her character of Abuela Claudia on stage, winning a Tony for the role, is sheer perfection. She knows who her character is on the inside and out and allows the viewer to know her as well. Merediz is key to the story and to the film and she flawlessly fulfills her role.
“In The Heights” is a gigantic undertaking and while there are two separate storylines pulling you away from the other —Nina and Benny, and Usnavi and Vanessa—they eventually merge together at the end. Under Chu’s direction, “In The Heights” satisfies all the senses making it a film you’ll want to see time and time again.
3 1/2 Stars