Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights is the sunniest, bounciest movie I’ve seen in a little while. It’s also among the most pleasantly surprising. Trailers for this film were released before the pandemic struck, and while the assumption was that it would be good, it just never felt like a film that I needed to see. So much so that I didn’t even see it on the big screen (it is streaming on HBO Max for a month). Yet after watching it, there is no denying the regret, because it should be witnessed on the big screen, if you’re comfortable with that.
When discussing the work of Lin Manuel Miranda, my main associations with him are Moana, Mary Poppins Returns, and Curb You Enthusiasm. Which, yes, means I have no association with his Broadway smash, Hamilton. From what I gather, it’s a musical with rapping, and In the Heights follows a similar rhythm. One I assumed wouldn’t work for me, mostly because, as they say, people are afraid of what they don’t understand. About five minutes into In the Heights, it became clear to me that Miranda’s formula was one that worked, and frankly, it’s all uphill from there. In the Heights is two and a half hours, which, gasp. Yet the film gets by on the fumes of its charm and music. It’s a film filled with likable performances and characters, and songs that surprisingly work wonders.
Headlining the film is Anthony Ramos, also from Hamilton. The cast is an ensemble and each of them do the heavy lifting, but Ramos carries about 45% of the movie on his shoulder, and he nails it. Ramos plays Usnavi (the name actually is a reference to the U.S. Navy), and he spends the film recalling his experiences to a group of kids in the Dominican Republic. He tells of his days in New York, as he runs a bodega and strives for a better life. Said better life includes better living conditions- being more successful, living in the Dominican, etc. Yet he also hopes to find romance with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who also has dreams of her own.
Much of the film is about dreamers, and the characters’ pursuit of making them come true. Which, yeah, doesn’t sound like anything particularly new, especially since La La Land wasn’t all that long ago. Yet the film succeeds because of the charm and delight it manages to bring. That, and you find yourself getting caught up in the lives of these people. Take Nina (Leslie Grace), for example. She catches the eye of Benny (Corey Hawkins), a really sweet guy who works for a taxi company. Yet her struggle lies in the fact that she has just attended Stanford, and doesn’t want to return due to racial prejudice, but also doesn’t want to disappoint her loving father (Jimmy Smits), who is struggling to get by with his business and is pouring a good chunk of his money into Nina’s tuition.
In the Heights does work dramatically, because these emotional elements are convincing and earned. Yet In the Heights is still about 75% of good spirits, and it’s a great time. While much of it is done through song, I couldn’t deny that the rapping method- not visible in every song here, but most- does work to the film’s favor. The skill with which the actors bring to this is really impressive and undeniable; it has to be a real pain in the wazoo to pull off on a Broadway stage. Yet it’s also probably a lot of fun.
In the Heights offers pleasures galore. It looks great, it sounds great. It’s breezy, it’s catchy. It’s also fairly funny, and I particularly enjoyed the moments with Daphne Rubin-Vega and the ladies at the nail salon; they appear to be having the best time, and we’re right there with them. Yet the charm of Ramos is certainly undeniable (it also helps that, along with charisma, he’s also kind of beautiful looking). In the Heights is perhaps the best movie I’ve seen this summer so far; a film that I tried to resist, but honestly, like the Mamma Mia! lyric, I ask: how can I resist ya?
Note: Miranda was recently brought into a controversy because of the lack of a certain representation in this film. To which I say, did you see this film? Not to ruffle any feathers, but I haven’t seen a film this inclusive in a long time.