In a small touching interlude from In the Heights, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the beloved matriarch of a Washington Heights neighborhood, has a heart-to-heart with one of her many surrogate grandchildren. Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), back home after a rough freshman year at Stanford, describes her sense of loneliness and alienation at a campus devoid of people like her — something Claudia, who immigrated to New York from Cuba, knows quite a bit about. Reminiscing about Nina’s hard-working late mother, Claudia says, “We had to assert our dignity in small ways… details that tell the world we are not invisible.” In the Heights, John M. Chu’s adaptation of the Tony-winning Lin Manuel Miranda musical, partakes of Claudia’s hard-earned wisdom and offers itself to the audience in the same hopeful, self-affirming spirit. But that’s not where it stops. This is a large, aw-shucks movie; to describe it as small would be an understatement. At nearly two-and-a-half hours and with a solid ensemble of actors singing, rapping, dancing, In the Heights is a tender movie that nonetheless revels unabashedly in its own size and scale.
Such scale generally works for the movie, though not always. As a collection of interwoven stories set to pulsing rhythms of everyday life, In the Heights can feel dramatically thin and overstretched as its source material supposedly was. But as a musical valentine to a close-knit Latino community, an inspired swirl of hip-hip, Latin pop, salsa and other musical idioms, its pleasures are often transporting. It summons, and mostly sustains, the kind of musical and visual energy that might help give the movies the resurgent summer they’ve been waiting for. And summer this movie definitely is. Set during a record-breaking New York heat wave the builds to a fateful Fourth of July blackout, In the Heights is assuredly a movie set to restore your gratitude for an air-conditioned multiplex.
The movie, whatever it loses in the translation to the screen, has some obvious milieu advantages. The camera strolls the bodega aisles, clocking every customer who drops in for a coffee or a lottery ticket. It dives beneath crisscrossing streams of water from spouting fire hydrants, showering a grateful crowd in one of several homages to Do the Right Thing. But unlike Spike Lee’s much more incisive evocation of a humid New York summer, the squeaky-clean In the Heights remains far away from bad vibes and bitter conflict, some romantic confusion and quickly resolved parent-child angst notwithstanding. The problems its multigenerational Latino characters face are undeniably complicated and deeply entrenched: the pressures to advance and assimilate; rising gentrification and diminishing opportunities; the endless quest for a place to honestly call home. But those problems are notably confronted here without violence nor bitterness and they are resolved, as much as they can be, with an affable spirit.
If Abeula Claudia is the wisest embodiment of that spirit, Usnavi is its most prominent face. He’s brought to life with a mix of pride, enthusiasm, weariness and determination by Anthony Ramos. Usnavi — whose unusual name is a funny, touching byproduct of his late father’s immigrant pride — relishes his role as a pillar of the community and a mentor to Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his good-hearted teenage cousin and employee. But Usnavi also longs to return to his childhood home in the Dominican Republic and revive the family business — one of the many sueñitos, or little dreams, that his friends and neighbors struggle to bring to life. “In the heights / I flip the lights and start my day / There are fights / Endless debts / And bills to pay,” they sing in a beautiful opening number that cuts rapidly between crowded apartments and stairwells before finally descending on a splendidly orchestrated street ballet. (The choreography here is assembled by Christopher Scott.)
That number also introduces other major characters like Vanessa (a superb Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who’s eyeing an apartment downtown and a relationship with Usnavi. Even more on the move is Vanessa’s boss, Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), whos’ been priced out of the heights and is relocating her beauty salon to the Bronx. A similar tough situation is bumping around the cab company run by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), a business that keeps shrinking as his daughter Nina’s tuition fees keep mounting. Kevin’s star employee, Benny (a charming Corey Hawkins), is also Nina’s love interest, and their romantic bond serves as a kind of emotional fulcrum, balancing Nina’s growing dissatisfaction with school against her father’s stubborn insistence that she see it through. Where does she, or really anyone, belong? Is leaving an act of liberation, of betrayal, or both? One of the finer points of In the Heights is that anyone who’s called the neighborhood home will have a different answer.
In the Heights continues Chu’s interests in cultural confusion and generational conflict (as seen in Crazy Rich Asians) and the expressive visual pop (as seen in the Step Up dance-movies). Yet he doesn’t entirely avoid the jumpy, overly-staged style that afflicts so many contemporary movie musicals. During a vibrant nightclub sequence where Usnavi and Vanessa keep circling each other, you might long for a steadier visual hand, one that doesn’t make the movie look like a Pepsi commercial and would just let the dancers dance without imposing its own fancy editorial footwork. Still, you understand the impulse behind it: a desire for the camera to be everywhere, to take in the sheer enormity of the joy. That impulse brings about some clever set pieces: a synchronized swim routine for the catchy and suspenseful “96,000”; daubs of animation that make explicit this musical’s debt to fantasy as well as reality. They’re all apart of moments that’ll likely inspire you to want to join in and be apart of it immediately — and for a few brief moments, you are. It may lack the finesse to carry some of the more heavy drama it teases and its abundance of characters, In the Heights‘ infectious joyfulness still can’t be missed.
As of June 11, In the Heights is available in Theaters nationwide and streaming on HBO Max