Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Premise: An adaptation of the stage musical about residents living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Members of the community wrestle with their love for the neighborhood and forces of gentrification.
What Works: In the Heights has frequently been described as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s love letter to the community of his youth and the film certainly plays that way. This is a fun and pleasantly sincere movie and it comes across as an updated version of the summer musical comedies popular in the early 1960s like Beach Blanket Bingo. The movie is very entertaining and immensely likable. That’s partly due to the characters. In the Heights is led by Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, a bodega owner who contemplates returning to the Dominican Republic. Ramos is an engaging lead and he is charming but also vulnerable. Usnavi is in love with Vanessa, played by Melissa Barrera, and their relationship is engaging. The two actors make the audience want them to end up together. Also impressive are Olga Merediz as Usnavi’s grandmother and Daphne Rubin-Vega as salon owner Daniela. No one here is a villain; they are all just well-meaning people going about their lives and trying to make ends meet. Among the most interesting storylines involves Nina and her father Kevin, played by Leslie Grace and Jimmy Smits. Nina has returned from college amid a crisis of confidence and the tuition bills are overwhelming. Grace and Smits are paired well as daughter and father and they get some of the film’s best dramatic moments. In the Heights is also distinguished by its filmmaking. Director Jon M. Chu brings kinetic energy to the movie and shoots everything in a way that highlights the local flavor. The music is nearly constant and the set pieces fuse together a contemporary hip hop sound with the features of a traditional Hollywood musical.
What Doesn’t: In the Heights is conflict adverse to a detrimental degree. The movie has several crisscrossing narratives and most of them possess an identifiable struggle. Usnavi is torn between returning to the Dominican Republic and his love for Vanessa. Nina considers dropping out of Stanford and be nearer to her family and community. Daniela moves her business to another part of town but worries that her customers will not follow her. These are all good and compelling storylines but everything gets resolved too neatly. In the end, everyone gets everything they want and there’s no sense of loss or concession. The movie has a similar problem with its politics. In the Heights acknowledges political topics such as racism, gentrification, and immigration but the filmmakers don’t really do anything with them. The film doesn’t enlighten or offer a new perspective; it just name drops those causes. The aversion to conflict keeps In the Heights affable but it also denies the movie any substance.
Bottom Line: In the Heights is the essence of what viewers look for in a summer movie. It trades substance for likability but that’s not a bad transaction in this case. What In the Heights may lack in depth it makes up for in sheer entertainment value.
Episode: #856 (June 20, 2021)