From Athena to Stormy Weather, I’m always filled with excitement when watching a good musical. In The Heights delivers on this, with a lot of beautiful songs combined with an urban summer setting that will remind many of us of our childhoods. Directed by Jon M. Chu based on the Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights is an ode to the vibrancy and exuberance of Latinx communities.
The story follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner in Washington Heights, over three days. He feels conflicted about closing his store to return to the Dominican Republic. The film doesn’t focus solely on Usnavi, showing the different perspectives of people who live in the same neighborhood. The Latinx community is not a monolith—no community is or should be—and the film aptly demonstrates the various outlooks and desires of its main cast.
There is Nina (Leslie Grace), who has recently come home to Washington Heights; she struggles with feelings of betraying her community, isolation, and profiling at Stanford University. Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) has no desire to return to DR but dreams of college. Benny (Corey Hawkins) works with Nina’s father, Mr. Rosario (Jimmy Smitts), as a cab dispatcher.
The film shows the lifeline that a community truly is, and how adrift we become when we lose it. You will have favorites in this film, but then you’ll keep adding other characters until you have almost the entire crew. The one issue pertains to the diversity of casting, particularly as it relates to skin color. The majority of the cast is paper bag-shade or lighter; it does a disservice to any community when a section of it is barely acknowledged.
The encroaching gentrification of Washington Heights is not a main part of the story, but it creeps throughout. It’s not only moving into an established community that’s a problem, but expecting said community to conform and mold itself around you. This inevitably hurts people who’ve lived there all their lives and have built businesses. They must get out or be forced out as costs surge. Interlopers lack that sense of community that is built over time, ignoring that their presence harms the community they now reside in. Where one goes, more always follow.
The music will force you to move—either with a foot tap or a whole merengue body sway. Dancing usually starts in the hips as the music drives you from your seat and this film does that. The songs range from the ensemble titular track “In The Heights” to the hilarious “Benny’s Dispatch.”
A year spent within a pandemic that has us yearning for connection gives In The Heights an added boost. Not that it needs it. You feel connected to the movie because of the music and good acting—especially Anthony Ramos and Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia. (Her song “Paciencia Y Fe” is phenomenal!) The directing does justice to the songs with an appropriate magical quality. After all, community is magical and can lessen a blow and amplify joy and hope. Community can find that spark within us when we can’t find it for ourselves.
Sadly, the days of getting shaved ices with friends, playing in front of an open fire hydrant, or yelling “I got next” on a handball court are gone for so many of us right now. Still, this film will fill audiences with hope. Hope for their dreams; hope for spending time with family and friends; hope that this pandemic ends so that we can all continue to pursue our passions. Sometimes our passion changes, but our community will always be there to cheer for us. In The Heights reminds us of those moments with loved ones and gives us a sparkling light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. All we need is “paciencia y fe”!
In the Heights comes to theaters and HBO Max on June 11.
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