In an era marked by powerful calls for increased representation across the board in Hollywood, the reception of films like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and more have aided in the popularization of a watershed movement that is proving to those in the industry just how important showcasing diverse voices can be. Resulting in global phenomenons, these films offered underrepresented minorities the chance to finally see themselves portrayed on the big screen in large roles without stereotypical baggage. Simply put, these films not only became long-legged box office hits, but also joyous cultural celebrations that impacted the entire entertainment landscape for the better. A few years and a global pandemic later, a new film to push this movement forward has arrived: In The Heights is the crowd pleasing event of the season that functions as a watershed moment for Latinx representation on the big screen.
Set in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, In The Heights follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young bodega owner, alongside a wealth of other characters as they live their lives in the community and pursue their dreams. Guided through Usnavi’s narration, we see a diverse ensemble overcoming personal obstacles that manifest in various ways. Daniela, a salon owner (Daphne Rubin-Vega), must come to terms with moving her establishment as her rent rises, while Vanessa (Scream’s Melissa Barrera) wants to pursue a career in fashion, but must find housing downtown before being able to achieve her goal. Nina (Leslie Grace) struggles to find the funds to go to college, and Usnavi himself is forced to choose between staying home or continuing his father’s legacy abroad. Throughout the film, these storylines are interwoven with many more to result in a vibrant tapestry that accurately reflects the highs and lows of Latin-American life.
Framed through the song and dance musical approach that was present in Lin Manuel Miranda’s original production intended for the stage, director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) expands its scope for the big screen to perfection. Brilliantly staging musical sequences with hundreds of extras, Chu’s vision along with Alice Brook’s cinematography dances throughout the iconographic neighborhood with a uniquely passionate energy. Free from the limitations of stage-bound theater, his expansion of scope is accentuated with the innovative implementation of a surrealist touch in key moments. With vertical dances on buildings, colorful flags floating above the city, hidden passageways brought to life and more, Chu successfully personifies abstract metaphors to portray them on screen in a way that amplifies emotional beats to their maximum. Full of color and emotional vibrancy, Chu’s loosely holistic sense of storytelling permeates every aspect of the film to craft a joyful and energetic environment that takes full advantage of its musical genre.
However, this very same sense of loose storytelling does result in some narrative shortcomings. With a tapestry of interconnected musical vignettes, the film takes various detours as pacing shifts from scene to scene result in a shambolic narrative flow. With much ground to cover, the film glosses over various complexities as well, hinting at a plethora of social issues but leaving them by the wayside to prioritize the moments of joy as it jumps across setpieces. Yet by wearing its messy flaws on its sleeve, In The Heights cultivates a sense of heart with a raw viscerality that turns the majority of those flaws into strengths. By focusing on developing character-driven moments over a straightforward plot, it creates an organic narrative that maximizes emotional investment in the characters’ lives. With each character’s journey representing a varied facet of the illusion of the so-called “American Dream” many immigrants come in search of, its themes hold a universality that ensures that all will relate to it to a certain extent.
The way in which these characters were brought to life, though, would not have been possible without the aforementioned talented ensemble of performers casted to perfection by Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey. With an irresistible chemistry that jumps off the screen, major players take their chance to shine and knock it out of the park. As Vanessa, Melissa Barrera beautifully embodies Usnavi’s attachment to the community he has grown up, while still carving out a strong-willed name of her own. Jimmy Smits lends his hand as a caring father with warm gravitas as Gregory Diaz IV and Leslie Grace portray the hopes of a new generation hoping to take their families legacies further than ever before. The entire rest of the cast, from Corey Hawkins to Stephanie Beatriz to Lin Manuel Miranda (in a charming cameo) and more are superb as well, but the turns of two singular thespians are truly unforgettable.
Olga Merediz, reprising her role as Abuela Claudia from the stage production, takes center stage in a scene that recounts a journey in which she embodies the struggles of immigration while reflecting on the impact of her legacy and the sacrifices she’s made along the way. With an awards-worthy performance that is driven by a sense of charm alike that of Youn-Juh Youn’s Oscar-winning turn in Minari, one should not be surprised if her performance successfully enrages as a powerful voice in the awards race. Meanwhile, Anthony Ramos holds his own as the lead of the film, taking over Lin Manuel Miranda’s role of Usnavi with a passing of the torch in an incredible breakout performance filled to the brim with a fervent optimism and leading-man charisma that bodes well for his future in the industry. These two performances, along with all the others, are what truly bring In the Heights together.
Because of this and more, In The Heights deserves to be known as the crowd pleasing event of the season and one of the best musical films in recent memory. Jon M. Chu’s direction shines through vibrantly staged musical sequences and intimate moments, while Anthony Ramos delivers a charismatic breakout performance in a sensational cultural celebration that will bring joy to all. Harboring a noble responsibility on the film’s shoulders, with the pieces that it has, one can be hopeful that it’ll achieve the success of the breakout films that have aided in pushing forward efforts for further diversity and change the industry for the best.
In the Heights is now out in theaters from Warner Bros and also streaming on HBO Max.