In the Heights (2021)

In the Heights
Director: Jon M. Chu
Writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Noah Catala, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Marc Anthony
Seen on: 30.7.2021

Content Note: colorism, (critical treatment of) racism

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a bodega in the Latinx community of Washington Heights, New York City, but he dreams of returning to Dominican Republic and get the bar his father ran there going again. And he is this close to making this dream a reality. Much closer than to aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who he has been pining for since about forever. His best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) is also waiting for a girl – his boss’s (Jimmy Smits) daughter Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) who is returning home form college for the summer – one of the few people who actually made it to college out of their neighborhood. But Nina Rosario is unsure whether she actually wants to continue with college.

I had no previous contact with In the Heights before seeing the film, but I went in expecting a bombastic feel-good movie and that’s certainly what I got. It didn’t quite pull me into the music as much I’d hoped, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a good time.

The film poster showing a big crowd of people dancing in the streets of New York, Washington Heights to be specific.

I like musicals, I really do. And with pretty much all the musicals I love, I saw a film or stage version first and when I liked it, I started listening to the music by itself afterwards. Since I had no chance to see In the Heights on Broadway, the cinema was the first possibility for me to watch it, and as per usual, I didn’t listen to the music beforehand. Much to my disappointment, I also didn’t feel the need to listen to the music afterwards either and there was not a single melody that lodged itself into my brain immediately (quite to the contrary to Moana, where Miranda’s music caught me straight away. I have not seen Hamilton, so can’t comment on that).

But that was really the biggest issue I had with the film regarding its entertainment value – and that didn’t mean that I didn’t like the music while it lasted (just that I didn’t take it with me afterwards). The singing was certainly very good, as were the choreographies with a breathtaking scene where Benny and Nina start dancing at a 90 degree angle to the rest of the world.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barera) gazing at each other, holding hands in front of a cheering crowd.

It also seemed like the cast had a lot of fun, and really brought a lot of energy to the characters. I especially loved the fearsome threesome from the beauty parlor (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco), while feeling that the main characters were a little too smooth. I wanted a bit more bite to them. Ultimately, the only subplot that had enough roughness to not just flow past me was Nina Rosario’s struggles at and with university.

The film has been criticized for casting only light-skinned to white-passing Latinx in the main roles, a criticism that can’t be denied. At the same time, I thought the inclusion of the racism that Nina faces at college and the difficulties of dreamers was nicely handled (apart from the fact despite the time jump in the end, we don’t get to see the result of the citizenship application that is set into motion).

Overall, In the Heights is an entertaining, smooth and very big film with a charming cast. I’m sure that many people will manage what just didn’t work for me, despite the many good moments it has: they will fall in love with it.

Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins) gazing at each other, holding hands.

Summarizing: If you like big musicals, it’s a must.

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