In the Heights (now out in theaters and on HBO Max, after a year of delays), directed by Jon M. Chu from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical love letter to the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, was already suffused with a touch of gentle melancholy — not exactly nostalgia, but a sense of things passing. There’s a fairy-tale retrospection built into the film’s framing device, as our hero, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), sits at an idyllic beachside bar talking to a group of kids about “a faraway land called Nueva York” and a “barrio called Washington Heights.” His story centers on what would have been his last days in New York, as he prepares to leave behind the bodega he has run for most of his life and return to the Dominican Republic to restore his late father’s beloved bar. The neighborhood is changing, gentrification is encroaching, and Usnavi is tired of slaving away just to make ends meet. Once upon a time, moving to America meant a better life; now, it seems like you must leave to improve your lot.
Thematically, In the Heights focuses on the concept of “home” as more than a geographical location. Both Usnavi and Nina learn lessons about the difference between dreams and reality and Usnavi comes to accept that, although he may long for the perfect Dominican Republic of his memories and dreams, his place in the world – where everyone important to him lives – in Washington Heights.
It’s simply an overwhelming experience, to float weightlessly during the nearly 145-minute running time of “In The Heights.” And don’t let that number scare you off—the whole thing passes breezily like a New York minute, dancing its way through one typically humid and sweaty summer of the urban island’s Washington Heights, pitched on the brink of a soul-killing blackout. Sitting on a picturesque tropical beach and telling his tale to a company of adorable kids early on in the film, “The streets were made of music,” says the movie’s heart and soul Usnavi de la Vega. Here, he is played by your new favorite leading man Anthony Ramos, who revives Miranda’s Broadway role in an irresistibly likable, instantly star-making performance after holding several memorable parts in the likes of “Monsters and Men,” “White Girl,” and “A Star is Born.”
Miranda did a better job of keeping track of the huge ensemble in his next show, "Hamilton," but the movie and stage "Heights" are ungainly, with a story arc more like a series of story waves that crest too early.
The flip side is that Chu makes every minute of "In the Heights" overflow with life, energy, and fun. That's true from an opening song that introduces all the characters to a post-credits closer with Miranda and his "Hamilton" co-star Chris Jackson. There's also a playful tune sung in a beauty shop where even a wall of wigs busts a move. And a number where dancing lovers defy gravity — as, in a way, all lovers do.
The cast is phenomenal, including an array of unknown faces, and others familiar from the stage and screen. Most transformative and against type is Stephanie Beatriz, who portrays one of the gossiping hair stylists, as well as the beautiful, tough, and emotionally challenged Detective Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine — the characters are so different, it makes her nearly unrecognizable because it’s so difficult to reconcile the two personalities in one actor. Nonetheless, the songs are catchy and set to Latin rhythms that will encourage the audience to move to the music and eventually learn the words to sing along. While the soundtrack undoubtedly tells the characters’ stories, it also stands alone as a moving album that can be enjoyed outside the film.
In the Heights has an optimistic vibe that's irresistible. Even as it deals with occasionally uncomfortable topics like racism and gentrification, there's a core belief that loyalty to one's neighborhood is a strength that can help to overcome just about anything. Bright, energetic, and assembled with palpable love, this is a movie guaranteed to lift you.
Final Score – [8.3/10]
Reviewed by – Ritika Kispotta
Follow her @KispottaRitika on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KispottaRitika)
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