In The Heights
(PG 13 / 2h 23m / Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Overview: Infused with a hip hop sound and Latin flair, this musical spectacle transports its viewers through four sweltering summer days on a block in Washington Heights, Manhattan.
When a winning lottery ticket worth 96,000 dollars is sold at Usnavis bodega, he and his friends dream about what their lives would be like if the money were theirs, balancing aspiration with the sharp realities of issues like neighborhood gentrification, naturalization, and a power blackout.
Through it all, the neighborhood learns a series of lessons about identity and the importance of home.
Verdict: In the Heights took Broadway by storm in the mid-2000s, earning composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (of recent Hamilton fame) a Pultizer Prize nomination and a few Tony Awards. Here, he re-teams with original librettist Quiara AlegrÃa Hudes and director Jon M. Chu to deliver a summer film experience unlike any other.
To theorize what it is that makes In the Heights so worth the viewers time, I found myself drawn to the mental image of a delicious sandwich, perhaps one purchased from your local bodega.
The meat of the thing is its story. At its core, In the Heights tells a tale of dreaming. Each character has their own suenito (little dream, in Spanish) that they are chasing.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) wants to reclaim his fathers legacy back in their homeland of the Dominican Republic, but also wants to get with his crush, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera).
For her part, Vanessa dreams of leaving her job at the local salon to move Downtown and become a fashion designer. Local success story turned reluctant college dropout Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) arrives back home wondering if the dream of academic success she’s been pursuing is even hers.
Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), matriarch of the block, has undoubtedly inherited the suenitos of not only her Cuban immigrant mother, but also the neighborhood she cares for.
And when Usnavis bodega sells a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000 dollars, the whole of the Heights dreams a dream all their own about how they would spend the money.
Certain characters circumstances are relatable across the board - haven’t we all, like Vanessa, dreamed of getting that ideal job in maybe a better place than where we are at currently?
And who among us hasn’t played the What-if game about suddenly coming into a large sum of money? But other aspects of this story speak directly to the immigrant experience and the tension that exists therein, reckoning with the obligation to ones identity - both as an individual, and as part of your Community.
Practically speaking, the story hits a home run in this regard by juxtaposing the notion of dreams and aspirations with the concept of being a Dreamer - that is, a DACA recipient - as a small subplot involves Sonny (Gregory Diaz) and his struggle to obtain a pathway to citizenship.
The proverbial condiments on top of such a multi-faceted story are of the audio and visual variety. Jon M. Chus direction, particularly during the films most emotional moments - like Ninas tense discussion with her Dad about attending Stanford - really helps to drive the impact home.
Similarly, the cinematography of Alice Brooks adds a beautiful richness to many of the large group numbers, capturing all of the action with wide and vibrant shots, particularly during 96,000 and The Club/Blackout. And Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score is very well interpreted.
But the real secret sauce of In the Heights are the performances themselves. Anthony Ramos as Usnavi is almost instantly likable, in a way softer and more sympathetic than Mirandas Broadway interpretation.
While there was not a single slouch in the cast, standout performances include Daphne Rubin-Vega as the gossipy, yet takes-no-bull**** salon owner, Daniela.
Leslie Grace played Nina perfectly as a girl torn between her family’s expectations and what she feels is her responsibility. The real shining star of In the Heights is Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, a role which she originated on Broadway.
She moved and spoke with all the nurturing spirit of a grandmother, making me miss mine tremendously. Abuela Claudias catchphrase is Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith), and in the song of the same name, Merediz encapsulates the heart of the immigrant experience.
If you have an ounce of sensitivity, it is her performance over which you will shed the most tears. Fun bonus cameos include Puerto Rican superstar Marc Anthony, and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself as Piragua Guy.
Finally, we reach the element of the film that holds all this goodness together: Latinidad. This film was made by Latinos in celebration of Latinos.
From the predominately Hispanic setting of Washington Heights to the Latin rhythms in many of the musical numbers, and the frequent use of Spanish - both spoken and sung - it is impossible to separate the essence of what In the Heights is from the people it was not only written about; but written for.
And it is nearly impossible not to get hype during Carnaval del Barrio when the neighborhood residents shout Alza la bandera! (Raise the flag) and wave the flags of places like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba.
The joy and pride in this moment are palpable and go a long way toward crushing the myth that all Latino people are the same. And if the language barrier here presents a problem for you, the problem is really that your lens is too small.
And it is at this point that I will freely admit and acknowledge that as a Caucasian of Eastern European descent, I cannot speak definitively in any way to the Latino or immigrant experience as the film portrays it.
But I will also say that Latino representation in film matters and that, while admittedly imperfect in its way, Lin-Mirandas magnum opus made me glad and grateful to see people who looked like my Mexican friends or Costa Rican coworkers on the big screen.
There are a few aspects of In the Heights I would change, the biggest of which is the truncation of the love story between Nina and dispatch worker Benny (Corey Hawkins).
It also would not be asking too much for a bit more narrative near the emotional climax of the film to help slow the pacing down, but the fact remains - if In the Heights is comparable in any way to a well-made bodega sandwich, it will keep you going back for seconds.
Review by: Ashley J. Cicotte