Director John M Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway tale of a Latino neighborhood in upper Manhattan is just the film to be hitting theater screens as hopefully the coronavirus pandemic recedes enough for people to start getting back to movie houses. At turns optimistic and exuberant, it is a much welcome, explosively joyful start to the summer movie season.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, in a star making turn here) owns the local neighborhood bodega, but dreams of two things – heading back to the Dominican Republic to reopen a beach-side bar that used to be owned by his father and asking out Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Vanessa, meanwhile, seems oblivious to Usnavi’s longing, and is much more focused on leaving her job at the local hair salon to move down to Greenwich Village to pursue a career in fashion design. Usnavi’s friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) works as the dispatcher for a local cab company owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). When Rosario’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) returns from her first year at Stanford, Benny sees them possibly reconnecting. But Nina has a secret – she is dropping out of college and when she announces her plans to her parents, they are none too pleased. As a summer heatwave inexorably draws everyone closer towards the hottest day of the year and an electrical blackout, they find their faith in their dreams tested in ways that they were not expecting.
What’s wonderful about In The Heights is that it is a celebration of community and family. In this movie’s world, those are the two things that provide stability and support to all the characters, whether they are destined to live in the neighborhood for the rest of their life or whether they are striving to break out to a life somewhere else. This small handful of blocks is the anchor for both those destinies. But conversely, it is also about how neighborhoods like the one here change over time. The taxi service Kevin Rosario owns was originally run by an Irish man who sold it to him. Older businesses close and new ones move into their spaces. Gentrification in New York City has long been an issue, and In The Heights adroitly encompasses it into its themes and the characters’ stories without politicizing it in any way.
Director Chu sketches out the neighborhood of Washington Heights in a number of ways, bringing it alive in the process. The film starts off at dawn as the neighborhood’s residents rising to greet the day. They filter through Usnavi’s bodega grabbing coffee or a lottery ticket (probably the most blatant bit of symbolism in the whole piece) before heading off to work. It is a simple, yet effective way to introduce a number of characters and their relationship to Usnavi. As the film continues, Chu lets his camera luxuriate on the small details, like the preparation of a big evening meal to be shared amongst family and friends, to the point where you could almost smell the variety of dishes on the screen. Even characters with just a line or two seem to have connections with those around them.
Granted, if you squint a bit, there are some surface similarities to other stories of minority neighborhoods like West Side Story or a film like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. But here, when the heat is quite literally turned up on these characters, In The Heights doesn’t show them at their worst. It instead reveals how their characters can be at their best. That message is beautifully optimistic and sincere, and that is a bracing, refreshing tonic these days.
Chu’s decision to shoot the film in a very naturalistic manner not only helps keep the film’s characters and their stories feeling very grounded, but when they break into musical numbers that they break into feel all the more magical. From small, intimate numbers to big Busby Berkeley-esque production spectacles at a public pool to the use of animation to a dance that owes a little something to a certain Mr. F. Astaire and the film Royal Wedding, each number is infused with an almost dreamlike storybook quality to it. Combined with the framing device that the film uses, it makes In The Heights a delightful musical fairytale, both specific to its location and yet timeless in its universality.