“Say it so it doesn’t disappear.”
Invigorating and inviting. Demonstrative yet humble. Honest and hopeful. These are the ways I came to think of In The Heights, a joyous and jubilant cinematic adaptation of the stage musical, and certainly one of the very best films that’ll come from 2021. It’s a perfectly imperfect picture, swelling and stretching at the seams from all of the big dreams tucked inside a few square blocks, and yet it feels big enough and brave enough to give those dreams a place to take root. For them to grow outwards and upwards. In The Heights won’t be the best film I see this year but I could argue that it’ll be the most important. This is why we go to the theaters…this is why community and togetherness is at the core of the human experience. Few films follow the Golden Rule as faithfully or as playfully as this masterful musical.
The story is captained by the quite hilariously named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, Oscar worthy every step of the way), a quick to quip and prototypical bodega owner with big dreams of returning to his ravaged homeland in the Dominican Republic, hoping to rebuild his father’s now destroyed legacy. Usnavi wakes each morning looking at photos from his past, always saying aloud to himself that those were the best days of his life. He gives the community’s Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, who is sensational, especially during her big and emotional sequence) a kiss and a reminder to take her medicine, heading out the door in pristine Timberland boots for another long and hot NYC day on the grind. Usnavi bosses around his little cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), has his friend Benny’s (Corey Hawkins) order at the ready, and is plagued by the beauty of the catty-corner hairdresser Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who herself aspires to make it in the fashion industry. This is not a film for cynics. Dreamers only.
While Usnavi is one hundred percent the leading man in this intimate epic, he’s surrounded by a cast who are every bit as important and every bit as vital. Benny works for Kevin Rosario’s (Jimmy Smits) taxi company, and even dates his boss’ daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) on and off while she heads to Stanford with the weight of the community square on her shoulders. They all believe Nina will be the one to go make something of herself, and little do they know that she doesn’t feel as if she belongs among the Ivy League elitists. Every character in the film matters, gets a moment to shine and take center stage during any of the many incredible musical numbers, and no one is extraneous or devoid of value. The words matter, the actions matter, and the hopeful messaging makes a real difference. There’s no real antagonist either (although gentrification plays a major hurdle in these heroes’ pursuits of purpose). It’s just a bunch of people with big dreams, trying to manifest them into reality one day at a time.
It’s so appropriate that a story so full of fiery heart and spicy visual flair should take place during the middle of a heat wave. The Latinx community only comes closer as the days get hotter and hotter, with director Jon M. Chu making breathtaking creative decisions based off Lin-Manuel Miranda & Quiara Alegría Hudes text to make the surroundings visceral, as if the scorching days induce a bit of mania. Mannequins move and sing along, lyrics come to life as doodles on the screen, rolls of fabric cascade off buildings, and there’s even a lovely duo dance number performed on the side of an apartment building. On the heels of Crazy Rich Asians and with In The Heights, Chu shows he’s one of the most promising and talented blockbuster directors working today. Both films are so large in scale, but he never loses the soul of the story he’s telling either, because the world is every bit as integral a character as the people doing the living in it. This is a film you want to believe in, that you want to call home. It’s welcoming to all.
I did call it perfectly imperfect earlier, mostly because I’d say few of the songs drag out a little longer than they probably should’ve, and I was a bit confused by the romance between Usnavi and Vanessa. It seems to be a new attraction, but then we find out she was his childhood crush and that they attend the same small dinner gatherings, yet the absolute star Ramos and Barrera have the kind of fantastic chemistry that sparks every second they’re together. And while the DACA storyline with family friend and attorney Alejandro (Mateo Gómez) adds a timeliness to the film, it just doesn’t get the same attention as the rest of the picture. These are all relatively minor issues though. When a movie is this entertaining, dramatic, hilarious, and show stopping from start to finish, the little things only get smaller because the overwhelmingly bigger aspects envelope them in every way. I loved the tiny flaws; they make it feel even more human.
Beautiful, bombastic, and beating with the rhythmic heart of a literal colorful community whose experiences and expectations and flag colors blend together and beat as one, In The Heights is a towering piece of moviemaking in a disparate and dividing time when we desperately need it the most. Feeling inspired a few days after I saw the film, I threw on the soundtrack and put on my apron. I made pupusas, empanadas, ceviche, feijoada. Even poorly danced a bit in the kitchen. And although my dishes wouldn’t hold a candle to those found at any given potluck in Washington Heights, I still felt a connection to people who pridefully feel so represented by this amazing picture. It was kind of there on my plate, but I assure you, it’s there in droves on the screen. In The Heights is a lot of things, and may very well be the major motion picture event of the year. A real life fairy tale and a perfectly imperfect picture indeed.
“The best days of my life.”
Rating: 5 out of 5