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Film Review: “In the Heights” Rocks the Screen

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 9th, 2021

Film poster: “In the Heights”

In the Heights (Jon M. Chu, 2021) 4 out of 4 stars.

Before there was Hamilton, there was In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway debut. Set in New York’s Washington Heights community, in the very north of Manhattan, home to a large Dominican population, the musical is a celebration of Latinx immigrants and all the wonderful and vibrant diversity they bring to this country. Filled with catchy songs and raps, the show originally starred Miranda in the lead, but now the playwright and composer has graciously turned over protagonist duties to Anthony Ramos (Monsters and Men), who previously played Hamilton’s son to Miranda’s Hamilton (though Miranda does appear as a piragua, or shaved ice, vendor). Talented and charismatic, Ramos does the material more than justice, ably assisted by a strong ensemble that delivers a deliriously fun ride over the course of the film’s 143 minutes.

We open at a beachside café, where Ramos’s Usnavi sits telling his story to a group of children, one of whom, we will discover, is his daughter. We assume, correctly or not, that they are in the Dominican Republic (DR), whence Usnavi hailed, for he talks with longing about “The Heights,” a neighborhood battling gentrification as it struggles to hold onto its heritage. From that first scene, we cut to said neighborhood, where a big crowd joins Usnavi in singing the title number, followed by a lower-thirds title that states “3 Days Till Blackout, 82º.” As the days will count down, the temperature will go up, leading to the anticipated power outage. What will happen then? Watch and see.

Anthony Ramos in IN THE HEIGHTS ©Warner Bros.

Usnavi (whose odd name is explained later) is at a crossroads, as is The Heights. His father’s old restaurant in the DR is available for purchase, and a big part of him wants to take the money from selling his New York bodega and head south, since opportunities are limited for him in the States. The problem is that he is very much in love with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, El Hotel), a woman he has grown up with but never expressed feelings for. She has plans of her own, to set up a fashion label downtown, though that takes resources she doesn’t have.

There’s another young couple in the mix: Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins, Straight Outta Compton). She’s “the one who made it out,” as she sings, the kid whose grades landed her at Stanford, where she now feels like an imposter, though her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits, Who We Are Now), sees in her achievements the fulfillment of the American dream and refuses to listen to her stories of alienation. Benny works for him, and when Kevin decides to take drastic measures to keep Nina at Stanford, it threatens to derail Benny’s life, too.

l-r: Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace in IN THE HEIGHTS ©Warner Bros.

These, along with Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, Like Sunday, Like Rain) – a childless older woman who is grandmother to all – make up the main characters who drive the narrative. Their struggles to find happiness make up the spine of the piece, their emotions expressed in a series of lovely and lively melodies. Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) proves adept at innovative staging of the numbers, even bringing in a well-executed homage to Busby Berkeley in an outdoor swimming pool. Gorgeously photographed and fabulously performed, In the Heights rocks the screen, shining a welcome spotlight on those so often in the shadows.

An homage to Busby Berkeley in IN THE HEIGHTS ©Warner Bros.
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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