We’re two for two with the first big films to hit theaters now that the country is opening up more fully — hooray! But while A Quiet Place Part II might have been just what people needed to remember what it feels like to have a jump-out-of-your-seat good time at the cineplex, In the Heights will remind everyone how joyous, energizing and life-affirming the communal moviegoing experience can be. Especially when the film itself is about a particularly vibrant community.
That community is Manhattan’s Washington Heights, where Hamilton-creator-extraordinaire-who-does-all-the-things Lin-Manuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) once lived. Shortly before he started toying with the idea of adapting Ron Chernow’s “Hamilton” book for the stage, Miranda wrote the songs for and starred in the stage production of In the Heights … and won 4 Tony Awards in the process, including Best Musical. Now, director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and In the Heights’ original book-writer, Quiara Alegría Hudes, have adapted the production for the big screen — a full decade after the show’s Broadway run ended.
In the Heights tells several stories about the lives of Washington Heights residents, but the main character is bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, from Hamilton’s original Broadway company, as well as A Star is Born), who’s in love with budding fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). The problem is, they’re both desperate to leave Washington Heights to follow their own sueñitos, or “little dreams.” Vanessa wants to open a boutique elsewhere in Manhattan, and Usnavi is planning an imminent return to the Dominican Republic, where he spent “the best days of his life” as a child. So that whole long-distance-relationship thing stands in the way of Usnavi and Vanessa getting together.
We also have star-crossed lovers Benny (Corey Hawkins, Straight Outta Compton), a taxicab dispatch operator, and Nina (Leslie Grace), one of the heroes of the neighborhood who’s back for the summer after her first year at Stanford.
Other prominent community members include Nina’s dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits), everyone’s elderly “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), Usnavi’s young cousin and DREAMer Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and Daniela’s two favorite beauticians Carla and Cuca (Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco). Miranda also has a small role as a piragua (Puerto Rican flavored-ice) vendor … and he also comes back in the end credits scene, so don’t miss it!
While following so many characters’ lives results in a few loose ends, as well as some dialogue that feels slightly shoehorned, Chu still manages to make the audience care about what each person is going through. In fact, at the end of Abuela’s solo “Paciencia y Fe” [Patience and Faith], about her immigrant journey from Cuba and her tough start in the U.S., the theater I was in erupted in applause. I think that’s because the highs and lows of Abuela’s life reflect so many of our grandparents and great-grandparents’ experiences, regardless of what country they may have originally come from. In fact, my bet is that anyone watching In the Heights will be able to relate in some way to at least one of the characters’ struggles or dreams, or will otherwise see aspects of their own neighborhood reflected in the film. The community of Washington Heights actually functions as a fully formed character, and I felt like I was there.
But while the whole cast is strong and makes each role their own, the two stars are undeniably Ramos … and the dance numbers. Ramos is pure charisma, and his Usnavi is the type of guy you immediately want to root for, even though in your heart you fear he’ll end up regretting it if he actually pursues the sueñito he talks up throughout the movie. And when the whole cast comes together to sing and dance, it’s truly a sight to behold, with the biggest spectacle being the how-did-they-DO-that pool-based “96,000.”
I didn’t know anything about the Broadway version of In the Heights before seeing this adaptation, but I am a huge Hamilton fan, and so if there’s anyone else out there like me, rest assured that there are a few delightful Hamilton shout-outs awaiting you, and you’ll recognize Miranda’s lyrical and melodic fingerprints all over In the Heights’ songs (though I still found the Hamilton soundtrack far superior). However, you don’t need to be familiar with anything Miranda has done to enjoy this film. You just need to let yourself be transported to a New York neighborhood bursting with life, love and inspiration in the middle of a hot, hot summer. I promise that the residents of Washington Heights will take good care of you once you arrive.