Watching In the Heights is like drinking an ice cold soda on a sweltering summer day, or eating a delicious meal after you had to skip lunch. In other words, it hits the spot, satisfying you on a deep level. Movies like this are somewhat rare. There are plenty that entertain, plenty that make you feel glad you saw them. This one actually fills you with energy and adrenaline. It's a joyful picture that reimagines Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway hit as a glorious cinematic epic. You might not have a better time at the movies this year.
The story is set in the Washington Heights section of New York and follows several of its residents. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is a bodega owner who dreams of starting a business in the Dominican Republic. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) wants to move to Manhattan to live independently and pursue her aspirations in the fashion world. Nina (Leslie Grace) has been studying at Stanford, but wants to leave, much to the dismay of her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits). Benny (Corey Hawkins) works for Kevin's car delivery service, romances Nina, and has a drive to succeed. Their stories intersect in different ways, yet each of them has a strong tie to the people in the community and to the community itself.
In the Heights obviously has great source material. Miranda and co-creator Quiara Alegria Hudes crafted a tale full of memorable characters, cultural flavor, and heartfelt emotion. And of course, there's the music, which is phenomenal. As was the case with Hamilton, most of the songs are done in rap, although some are more traditionally sung. Several mix the styles together. Real passion infuses the tale as it uses the varying plot threads to explore what it means to have roots in a geographic area.
Having so much to work with, director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) gets busy making it all thrive as a movie. In the Heights never feels like a filmed play in his hands. Chu understands the importance of movement in a musical, and he makes sure to give the picture a pulse and style all its own. For starters, he creates a sense of scope, filming in actual locations and filling the shots with extras, all of whom sing and dance along with the leads. That has the effect of making Washington Heights feel like a place that's alive. The audience is transported to a section of the city that has a magical quality.
Staging of the musical numbers also accomplishes things that could never be done on the stage. One song, about the prize amount on a winning lottery ticket, takes place at a crowded public swimming pool, with people splashing in time to the beat and gliding in Busby Berkeley-inspired choreography. Later, there's a romantic number between Benny and Nina that finds them dancing up the side of an apartment building, weaving around the windows and fire escapes. The visual inventiveness is one of In the Heights' best qualities.
The actors are the other really strong suit. Anthony Ramos is utterly winning as Usnavi. He's such a charismatic performer that you can't take your eyes off him. Ramos is like the battery at the center of the movie, keeping it perpetually humming. Hawkins, Grace, and Barrera all turn their characters into three-dimensional folks we care about intently. In terms of supporting roles, the standout is Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, an elderly woman who serves as a mentor for the younger folks. She gets a show-stopping number set in a colorfully-lit tunnel that you instantly want to rewind and watch again as soon as it's over.
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 up.
out of four
In the Heights is rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive references. The running time is 2 hours and 23 minutes.