REVIEW: In the Heights [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 143 minutes
    Release Date: June 11th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Studio
    Director(s): Jon M. Chu
    Writer(s): Quiara Alegría Hudes / Lin-Manuel Miranda & Quiara Alegría Hudes (musical)

Little details tell the world we’re not invisible.

I don’t know why the 2011 film adaptation planned for In the Heights fell through, but it’s hard not to believe the reason stemmed from Hollywood’s continued reluctance to bankroll and open movies with POC-led casts. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes‘ musical debuted on Broadway in 2008, toured the US in 2009, and won four Tony Awards—including Best Musical—and yet it still wasn’t enough to push it over the finish line. You have to wonder if anything would have ever got it there besides the astronomical success of Miranda’s follow-up Hamilton. In the Heights was a winner, but Hamilton was a phenomenon. The latter made Miranda a bankable name and turned his style into a mainstream hit for studios to supply its origins a chance.

Freestyle rap and salsa numbers in a play about young Latinos and Black residents of Washington Heights dreaming of a better life suddenly became profitable because freestyle rap in a play about our white Founding Fathers bridged the gap for a lot of white audience members you know would never have seen the former otherwise. And the sad part is that Hamilton being the better work and the bigger success means Hollywood can hide behind the narrative that In the Heights just wasn’t sustainable enough on its own. The lie is perpetuated, more stories like the behind-the-scenes drama of “Kim’s Convenience” silencing Asian voices in the writer’s room are brought to the light, and POC creatives find themselves needing white America’s validation before receiving a modicum of support.

Before you go praising Warner Bros. for jumping on the Hamilton money train (Universal opted out in 2011), know that the work on-screen would have been just as good then as it is now. Hudes is still the screenwriter and Miranda is still a producer. Does director Jon M. Chu provide a bit more pizzazz than original helmer Kenny Ortega? I guess we’ll never know. The only real change with having to wait an extra decade is the reality that the original cast would be aged out. That meant having the opportunity to jumpstart the big screen careers of newcomers who wouldn’t have had the chance to lead a Hollywood blockbuster without this specific work waiting in the wings for Hamilton‘s coattails instead of the reverse.

We therefore meet Anthony Ramos as Usnavi rather than Miranda. He’s sitting at his Dominican beach bar in front of four children asking what “Suenito” means: “Little Dream.” It’s a new narrative device rendering the plot’s lead-up to a blackout into a flashback of events that occurred almost a decade ago. How did that moment in his life change everything? How did the people he called family prop him up and inspire him to become the person he is today? How did a dream of working to live rather than working to survive come to fruition when the odds always seemed so stacked against him? It has to do with Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz, reprising her Tony-nominated role) unwavering support, Benny’s (Corey Hawkins) friendship, and the Heights’ inspiration.

But it also has to do with the countless other dreams that motivated this community to embrace their identity in direct opposition to the disparaging American ideal of assimilation. Coming here was never supposed to be about abandoning their heritage. Claudia, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), and Usnavi’s late father arrived in the hopes of finding a way to make their identity viable in this land of opportunity. Claudia found family in the generations of neighborhood kids she took under her wing. Kevin found prosperity in growing his fleet of taxicabs into a Washington Heights staple. And Usnavi was afforded the chance to learn and grow in a world that would ultimately provide him a choice: stay in his adopted home or go back with the means to succeed.

Benny’s dream was to be someone his neighborhood could count on after causing trouble in his youth, but his best chance is fading. Kevin’s daughter Nina’s (Leslie Grace) dream was to be the one that got out (Stanford called her west) only to find herself lost and alone. Usnavi’s crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) dreams of being a fashion designer if only those with the power to make it happen saw that potential instead of dismissing her as a nail salon beautician. They have dreams to be more than their present despite their present doing all it can to tell them they never will—that the American Dream isn’t theirs to take. That’s not an easy thing to overcome. And only those who’ve had to overcome it truly understand.

It’s a beautiful message and the story’s real draw. How do parents hinder their children’s dreams in pursuit of making them real? How do kids stay positive enough to ignore the growing sense of futility fostered by a government that always seems at odds with their prosperity and refuse to quit? Hudes injects a resonant thread about the threat against DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients by republicans and the hopelessness so many undocumented youths must confront when planning their futures that really hits home and helps Nina realize education doesn’t have to be about escape when it can actually fuel her purpose and need to stay. That which we take for granted isn’t afforded to everyone. We must become our own force for change.

Add some rousing music; a great, effusive atmosphere of cultural vitality; and some stunning cinematography (Alice Brooks‘ work with reflections is amazing and Chu never shies from showing the sheer magnitude of his set-pieces and kinetic dance numbers) and it’s almost impossible not to get swept up by the film’s joyous celebration of life. The visual flourishes (“Breathe” has Nina watching a younger version of herself, “96,000” draws graffiti out of thin air, and “When The Sun Goes Down” tilts the world so Benny and Nina can dance on the side of their building) are almost a bonus—the spectacle only overshadowed by the emotionally poignant performances (Merediz and Ramos are the standouts) that never forget the pain and struggle our optimism can’t always hold at bay.

The only weak point I see lies with the central romance between Usnavi and Vanessa. From what I’ve read about the stage show, much of what I felt failed in this respect seems like the result of that aforementioned flashback device and the way Hudes made the cinematic version of In the Heights as much about its message of individuality and pride as it is a “How I Met Your Mother” anecdote. The relationship between Benny and Nina works so well because it’s simply allowed to exist (the source material’s drama with Kevin not blessing their pairing is removed). The fact that Usnavi and Vanessa must always be kept apart not only waters down any sexual tension that does manifest, but it also renders their obvious union anticlimactic.

Those moments when we go to the beach to watch Usnavi tell his story are thus less about giving us a sense of time and place as they are a frustrating distraction from what really works. There’s a reason for it—and the reveal is cute if also very hokey—but I’m not sure it adds more weight than the investment it subtracts. Shifting around Claudia’s plot progression, on the other hand, really helps punctuate the split between Act One and Two in a way that allows the other characters the introspection they need to reach their respective decisions on the future. “Paciencia Y Fe” becomes a real showstopper that will hopefully earn Merediz a well-deserved Oscar nomination as the heart and soul of the whole.

[1] © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Macall Polay Caption: (Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.© 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: OLGA MEREDIZ (center) as Abuela Claudia in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Macall Polay Caption: (L-r) COREY HAWKINS as Benny and LESLIE GRACE as Nina in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[4] © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Macall Polay Caption: JIMMY SMITS as Kevin Rosario in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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