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In the Heights | A Sun-Drenched, Charming Tale Of Dreams, Community And Home

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In the Heights is directed by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu and is an adaptation of the Broadway musical written by Quaira Alegria Hudes – with music, lyrics and concept created by Lin Manuel Miranda – you know, the guy behind that tiny Broadway show called Hamilton.

Our story takes places in the Manhattan borough of Washington Heights – a predominantly Latinx neighbourhood. Our protagonist is convenience store owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who dreams of fulfilling his deceased father’s Suenito or “little dream” of opening his own beach side bar in his place of birth; The Dominican Republic. We watch as Usnavi wrestles with the choice of chasing his fathers dream or staying in the community which raised and embraced him with open arms.

I came out of In the Heights beaming with joy. It’s one of those perfect summery, all-singing, all-dancing, big screen movies that get your hips swaying, your toes tapping and your teeth grinning. Most importantly it’s a film, that justifies seeing it on the biggest screen possible – don’t deprive yourself of the treat of seeing it at a cinema. It’s a film that is so easy on the eyes – not just because of its ridiculously gorgeous cast, but thanks to the dazzlingly inventive set pieces, breathtaking choreography, vibrant art direction and Jon M. Chu’s dynamic camerawork. It’s alive with such kinetic energy and utterly infectious music.

The comparisons to West Side Story seemed inevitable – which incidentally is getting a Steven Spielberg reimagining later this year. But that comparison is a very generalised one, In the Heights feels refreshingly different to all other movie-musicals. There’s an intoxicating mix of old and new. Every number is laced with a deliciously Latin flavour. There are classic emotionally charged ballads that will make your heart swoon but there’s also elements of salsa, hip-hop, merengue and Lin Manuel Miranda’s now-recognisable, spoken-word, recitative rap sensibilities. Side note for all Hamilton fans keep your ears open for a familiar musical easter egg. There’s a real emphasis on “the little details” on display in this film which makes it feel like an authentic celebration of all things Latinx. One can’t help but smile at the thought of all the positive ramifications a film like this will have on the underrepresented Hispanic communities around the world.

The cast are all superb. Anthony Ramos lights up the screen with his boyish good looks and cheeky smile as Usnavi. He’s backed up by the fiery Mellissa Barrera who plays aspiring fashion designer and love interest Vanessa. Corey Hawkins plays Usnavi’s pal Benny who yearns for old flame Nina (Leslie Grace), who is going through her own identity crisis. She’s back from Stamford College but has felt ostracised and isolated as a minority among her predominantly White classmates. Benny and Nina share one of the standout set pieces a they perform a duet of the When the Sun Goes Down whilst dancing along the side of a Manhattan building.

But the MVP is without-a-doubt Olga Merediz who reprises the same role she played on Broadway as the Washington Heights matriarch Abuela Claudia. She is the heart of the community and of the film itself. Merediz delivers a dignified performance that’s sure to have Oscar-pundits on their radar for a best supporting actress nomination. She reduced me to tears during her rendition of Paciencia y Fe – it’s soul-touchingly obvious why they brought her back for the movie.

When looking for criticisms there is so much love radiating from this film that it’s easy to let the knit-picky stuff slide. Such as there is a lot of very noticeable product placement – In the Heights is brought to you by Coca Cola, Beats and Moët Champagne.

There’s also some clunky shots during one of the standout songs 96,000. The sequence involves a stunning on-location swimming pool set piece, however there was clearly some green screen footage of Anthony Ramos inserted after shooting. It’s a rather sore-thumb addition in otherwise flawless number.

But where In the Heights truly struggles is with character conflict and resolution – or the lack thereof. Most of the conflict is internal, many of the characters are wrestling with the decision of staying or leaving. Asking themselves where do I belong? But the rest of the time it’s all sunshine, love and joy. Even the blackout is a cause for celebration instead of panic. There isn’t much more than surface-level struggles. Without conflict there’s no real drama. There are brief moments where the story hints are some bigger issues like the gentrification of the neighbourhood but never actualy dives in the deep end. And the only mention of racial tension comes from Nina’s experiences at university – but that’s all it is; mentioned. We never actually witness it happen to her.

And while the film ends on an uplifting note I couldn’t help but feel too many of the characters arcs were left unresolved. Upon leaving the theatre I found myself asking a lot of questions; What did Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) do after selling the business? Did Vanessa’s fashion dreams take off? How does Nina cope back at Stamford? And what’s Benny doing with himself now? The answers all remain ambiguous so there is a lack closure.

In the Heights is a sun-drenched and charming tale of dreams, community and home. Despite a slightly long runtime and a lack of character conflict/resolution, it more than makes up for those issues with its phenomenal cast, luscious musical set pieces and fabulous choreography. After a year deprived of social dancing, this is the perfect pick-me-up summery film that’ll make you thirsty to get back on a dance floor.

★★★★

In the Heights is released in U.K. cinemas June 18th and is available in other regions on HBO Max.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nilAZ7XwPII&t=28s

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