Part celebration of heritage, and part joyous celebration, Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights combines the endlessly catchy songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda and excellent performances from the entire cast to create a vibrant and enthusiastic celebration of life in Washington Heights.
Anthony Ramos stars as Usnavi, who lives in the neighborhood with his Abeula Claudia (Olga Merediz), who raised him following the death of his parents. The neighborhood is populated with an eclectic group of characters, including Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), taxi company owner Kevin (Jimmy Smits), Kevin’s home-from-college daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), salon ladies Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) and Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera).
All members of the community are balancing staying close to their roots in Washington Heights while also trying to better themselves in their advancing age and circumstances. The neighborhood is changing due to gentrification and rising rent, while an impending blackout looms for the community. Each vignette is punctuated or cultivated by a song and dance choreography that usually breaks the fourth wall.
The film is decidedly about a group that is sorely underrepresented on film. All the main actors are Latinx with the exception of the African-American Hawkins. Not only is the film about the Latinx experience, it is unapologetic in it’s roots and appreciation of the culture. No attempts are made to over explain overt cultural references and the frequent Spanish thrown in on the dialogue is rarely subtitled. This is a story about a Latinx group, but its themes extend across cultural borders.
Each song is vibrantly performed and expertly choreographed by Christopher Scott. Each actor has their own showcase and all are up to the task. Ramos commands the screen with his soft features and gentle presence. Hawkins also comes off well with a more likeable character than he is usually stuck with in lesser films. Relative newcomers Grace and Barrera show off their acting chops as well as their talented vocals in elevated roles that rise above stock romantic interests.
The more veterans members of the cast really shine, with Smits lending a level of gravity and warmth he rarely gets to show. Rubin-Vega also steals scenes with her energy and unique look. Merediz is the film’s MVP, reprising her role from the stage musical. Hanging out on the edges for the bulk of the first half of the film, Abuela is a character everyone loves and she radiates the positive energy the film grants her. When she gets her showstopping musical number, Merediz nails every beat and breaks your heart in a five minute span.
The colors and sounds of the film burst off the screen and sends you out with a smile on your face. Despite a 2:23 runtime, the film doesn’t feel overlong and always keeps the momentum moving forward.
Chu and Miranda have cultivated one of the funnest, most energetic films of the year that should only improve upon rewatch. I can’t wait to see it again so I can have another smile.