Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera play Usnavi and Vanessa in In the Heights. Warner Bros. hide caption
In the Heights couldn’t be timed more perfectly. For one thing, summer movies don’t get much more summery than this one set in New York during a record-breaking heatwave. On the other hand, there is this lively screen adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda Stage musical captures something that we largely did without last year: a happy feeling of togetherness.
This is the most socially distant movie I’ve seen in months. The action takes place in overcrowded store aisles and gossip-filled beauty salons where everyone knows everyone. The musical numbers that mix hip hop, latin pop, salsa and other styles often shine in the surrounding neighborhood. The actors become dancers in an electrifying street ballet.
Much of that is wrapped up in the movie’s transporting opening sequence, which takes us to this pan-Latino barrio in Washington Heights. Miranda shows up in a small role as a saleswoman selling shaved ice from a handcart, but our real guide to this Upper Manhattan neighborhood is Usnavi de la Vega, played by a great Anthony Ramos.
Usnavi owns a popular corner bodega that is particularly valued for its café con leche. As he raps about the challenges of running his seedy little business in a place that is quickly gentrified, he is accompanied by a chorus of neighborhood voices singing about their own struggles to get through.
As much as he loves Washington Heights and the people who live there, Usnavi longs to return to the beaches of the Dominican Republic, where he grew up. He hopes his cousin Sonny, played by Gregory Diaz IV, will come with him, but Sonny, an undocumented immigrant, dreams of becoming a US citizen. One of the more poignant realizations of In the Heights is that everyone has a different concept of home.
Usnavi has long had a crush on Vanessa, played by an excellent Melissa Barrera who hopes to move downtown and become a fashion designer. Leslie Grace plays her friend Nina, an academic superstar who has just had a rough year at Stanford where she doesn’t feel she belongs. But her father Kevin – a nice twist from Jimmy Smits – wants Nina to stick with it: If she doesn’t get out of the Heights and succeed, he thinks what hope is there for others?
Kevin, who immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico decades ago, runs a taxi company that is one of the few remaining Latin-owned companies in the area. As rents rise and people and businesses move away, the community gets excited when Usnavi learns that someone at his bodega has bought a lottery ticket for a jackpot of $ 96,000.
I saw In the Heights on stage in Los Angeles in 2010, and while the screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes made some clever tweaks and adjustments to her original book for the musical, some of the material’s fundamental weaknesses remain here. The various romantic and up and coming subplots are engaging enough but feel thinly stretched after more than two hours. Washington Heights looks more alive and immediate on screen than it does on stage, but in some ways the simple, relentlessly optimistic nature of the story seems all the more blatant.
Still, there’s nothing to be said against staying optimistic for the moment, and director Jon M. Chu is up to the task. Chu previously directed Crazy rich Asians, and he’s good at squeezing resonant ideas about generational conflicts and cultural confusion into a nifty, audience-friendly package. It’s worth noting that Chu also made two entries in the Step Up dance film series, and while I sometimes wish he’d slow down the editing and let the musical numbers breathe more, the sheer dynamism of his filmmaking is hard to resist.
In the Heights might not be a great movie, but it’s a pretty great cinematic experience. There are beautiful moments here, like when Benny and Nina dance a surreal, gravity-defying dance by the side of a residential building. There are also exciting ones when the neighborhood, rocked by a power outage triggered by the heatwave, contracts to throw the mother of all block parties.
And there’s a stunning solo by Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood’s adoptive grandmother, played by Olga Merediz, who wonderfully repeats her Tony-nominated role. Claudia’s big number is called “Paciencia y Fe” or “Patience and Faith”, values that she has stuck to since she moved from Cuba in the 1940s. She is the living embodiment of the loving and persevering spirit of this film.