Movie Review: In the Heights

If you’ve been feeling blue these past 17 months, it’s time to get happy. The feel-good film of the summer is finally here. IN THE HEIGHTS, the long-awaited film adaptation of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Tony-award winning play of the same name, is an uplifting and colourful tribute to the hard-working, big-dreaming residents of New York City’s Washington Heights neighbourhood.

Featuring the music of Lin-Manuel Miranda (HAMILTON), IN THE HEIGHTS centers around Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, HONEST THIEF; A STAR IS BORN; HAMILTON), a 28-year-old originally from the Dominican Republic, who runs his late parents’ bodega located in the shadow of the majestic George Washington Bridge. Set during the Obama Era, the neighbourhood is changing with gentrification just starting to take hold. Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits, THE TAX COLLECTOR; TV’s NYPD BLUE and L.A. LAW) recently sold half of the space that houses his car dispatch business to an upscale dry cleaners that charges US$9 for a shirt, and Daniela (Broadway actress Daphne Rubin-Vega) is soon moving her popular beauty salon to a shopping mall located in The Bronx. It’s only across the river but, for these people, it might as well be a world away. Usnavi is a dreamer. He wants to return to the D. R. and rebuild his father’s old beachside bar, and to that end, he’s made an offer on the property. Usnavi isn’t the only one in the barrio who has dreams though. His long-time crush, Vanessa (Mexican actress Melissa Barrera), who works in Daniela’s salon, dreams of running her own dress shop in the West Village selling her own uniquely designed fashions. Rosario’s daughter Nina (singer-songwriter Leslie Grace), who is back home for the summer after struggling at her first year at Stanford, dreams of staying in the neighbourhood and with the people she loves so much. Usnavi’s best friend, Benny (Corey Hawkins, BLACKKKLANSMAN; KONG: SKULL ISLAND), works as Kevin’s dispatcher and is Nina’s ex-boyfriend. He dreams of getting back together with Nina and becoming Kevin’s partner in the business. And Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s street-smart teenage cousin, dreams of finishing high school and going off to university – something few people in the neighbourhood have done. Sonny is a Dreamer (with a capital D) though, and his opportunities are limited unless the government legislation for children of undocumented immigrants changes. A citywide blackout brings the hustle and bustle of life to a screeching halt, pushing these characters to take stock of their lives, their dreams and their sacrifices.

Directed by Jon M. Chu (CRAZY RICH ASIANS; NOW YOU SEE ME 2; the STEP UP films), IN THE HEIGHTS bubbles over with excitement from the get go. The music is infectious so don’t be surprised to hear people in the audience singing along. Even if you don’t know the words, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find yourself tapping along to the syncopated Latino hip-hop beats before too long. While the performances are all stellar – Manuel also has a small role as the neighbourhood piragüero (shaved ice vendor) – it’s Hawkins who outshines them all. The Juilliard graduate is mesmerizing to watch especially during his gravity-defying number (“When the Sun Goes Down”) with Grace. Equally impressive are the impeccably choreographed production numbers, including one in a swimming pool that would make Busby Berkeley beam with delight. If there’s anything I can fault with the film it’s that the big numbers are so intricate, it’s impossible to take in the spectacle with just one viewing.

The story, for the most part, plays like an antithesis to “West Side Story” where the worst things that happen in the neighbourhood are that the graffiti artist paints on a store grate or some kid makes off with a snack cake from the bodega. The closest the story gets to showing the gritty side of life is when we meet Sonny’s father, Mr. de la Vega (singer Marc Anthony), who clearly has substance abuse issues. But where IN THE HEIGHTS resonates with audiences is with the challenges and struggles that immigrants of colour and their children face every day. As Usnavi’s grandmother figure, Abuela Claudia (Broadway actress Olga Merediz), sings in her show-stopping number, “Paciencia y Fe”,

So we cleaned some homes, polishing with pride,
scrubbing the whole of the upper east side
The days into weeks, the weeks into years, and here I stayed.

In the end, though, patience and faith bring everyone to their Dorothy Gale moment and all is right with the world again.

Friends of mine who have seen the play and now the movie tell me that the two are slightly different. One character from the play is missing in the movie, some songs were dropped while new ones were added, and a subplot about DACA and Dreamers was added as well. They all said, however, that both are excellent in their own ways.

Needless to say, I love this film and you will too. IN THE HEIGHTS opens in Hong Kong’s cinemas next Thursday (June 17). It opens in North America and in other overseas markets this weekend before rolling out to the rest of the world over the coming weeks. Definitely see it in the cinema.

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