In the Heights is a perfect movie for a post pandemic world. After over a year of staying home, social distancing, and not being able to see friends and family members, we are slowly getting back to normalcy as the world begins to open back. John M. Chu’s fantastic musical wants to celebrate everything that we’ve missed in the last year. It is a movie about community, love, life, and fun and is one of the best movies 2021.
In the Heights doesn’t have much of a plot, yet is full of rich characters, culture, and setting to make the film captivating from minute one until the credits roll. The film takes place in the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. At the center of Washington Heights is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner who’s big dream is to move to the Dominican Republic where his father used to live. When that opportunity arises, Usnavi must decide if starting a new life in the Dominican is the right choice for him or hecontinue living in the place he was born and raised in the Heights.
Along with Usnavi, we meet a number of eclectic characters that live in The Heights. There’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, in a breakout performance), a hairstylist who dreams of becoming a fashion designer and Usanvi’s crush. Benny (a delightful Corey Hawkins), Usnavi’s friend who works at a cab company for Kevin Rosario (a commanding Jimmy Smits); Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter and Benny’s love interest who has returned back from Stanford unsure of her future there, even though it’s all her father wants for her; Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s young, lazy cousin who helps run the bodega; Daniela (Daphne Ruben-Vega) and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), who run the local salon, Graffiti Pete (Noah Catala), who got his name from tagging everywhere in the neighborhood; and Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, in the film’s best performance), a matriarchal figure who helped to raise Usnavi and others in the neighborhood. We watch them all interact over the course of a few scorching hot days that all lead up to a city-wide blackout.
This is the first of Miranda’s musicals to get a theatrical treatment, unless you want to count the live-recording of Hamilton that premiered on Disney+ last summer, which I don’t, and director John M. Chu has given us a truly spectacular musical. What Chu does best is allow the actors and dance perform without rapidly cutting. There are several long takes where we get to see the fluidity of the moves the actors and dancers are doing, which only makes it even more impressive and makes the musical sequences shine even more. The most accomplished set-piece is set to the song “96,000”, which takes place at community pool. It is the best song in the movie and a terrific set-piece that gives everyone in the ensemble a moment to shine.
Watching In the Heights reminded me a lot of watching Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing. Though Do the Right Thing is a sprawling racial drama and In the Heights is a bright musical, both feature a lot of similar qualities in its characters, story, and themes. Both films are great New York movies set in specific neighborhoods (Brooklyn and Washington Heights) and take place during a heatwave. Both films feature eclectic ensembles with similar characters like the stubborn store owner (Sal in Do the Right Thing, Kevin Rosario in In the Heights) and the motherly patriarch (Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing, Abuela Claudia in In the Heights), and every performance is pitch perfect. Both films are rooted in culture, with Do the Right Thing looking at a predominantly Black block in Brooklyn and In the Heights looking at Latino life in Washington Heights, and they both look at themes of race, gentrification, community, and love within their neighborhood. In the Heights might not be as great of a movie as Do the Right Thing (not a lot of movies are, frankly), but it’s interesting to see two movies that are so different in tone and genre can be equally effective in terms of how they present their characters and their themes.
In the Heights is a film of pure joy, something we haven’t seen or had much of over the last year. It is a movie that celebrates a culture, a neighborhood, and the people you grow up with and the ones you call family. All of this set to the stunning musical numbers written by the great Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is movie that can be watched again and again and it will bring nothing but happiness every time. Every character is interesting, every musical number is exciting, every camera move is smart and expertly made, every performance is spot-on, and every theme is powerful and relevant. In the Heights is one of the great films of 2021.
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