In The Heights (2021) has a lot going for it – even before the opening scene hits the screen. Lin-Manuel Miranda as a writer is accompanied by many Hamilton stars populating the screen, followed by Anthony Ramos as the lead. New Miranda music and a New York story in the visual style of Jon M. Chu after his successful and beautiful Crazy Rich Asians (2018) just adds to the anticipation. While there are elements from this Broadway adaption that are underdeveloped or slight, there are plenty of positives to make In the Heights a feel-good summer movie.
Usnavi (Ramos) runs a Bodega in Washington Heights, but he has dreams of heading back to the Dominican Republic and reopening a bar his father use to run before coming to New York. Usnavi isn’t the only one with dreams or expectations of a life outside the boroughs, as the movie moves between Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who longs to be a fashion designer, Nina (Leslie Grace) who is back from her first year at college, Benny (Corey Hawkins) just wants Nina, and Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who just wants opportunities. The characters are empathetic, which manages to pull the audience through the elements of their individual or intertwined narratives that don’t all develop past the simple ideas.
What really works in this movie are the performances – especially from Hawkins and Ramos. These two guys have so much charisma and talent that it just pours out of the screen. Need a moment where a single tear rolls down the cheek of your male protagonist? Well, these guys can do it, and sell every second of that sadness. Their eyes tell you exactly how they feel, and their earnestness makes this musical click – even when they aren’t singing or rapping. Barrera and Grace don’t have large filmographies, but both have tremendous voices. Nina gets a little more story development, but – like a lot of it the drama in this film – her major conflicts could be resolved if people were more willing to discuss their problems rather than shout out their objections.
There were three songs that really stood out as the bangers of In The Heights, and they are the more ensemble pieces. Without looking back at the song list, the pool sequence is at the forefront of my memory. Benny, Usnavi, and Sonny are walking to the pool, and find out that someone who purchased a lottery ticket from the bodega won. The guys start speculating what they would do with the $96,000.00 and the use of animation is superimposed onto the visuals. They arrive at the pool, and the entire borough seems to join the song and the speculation of how they would spend the money. It’s excellent and the choreography clicks.
The finale is what sold me on my love of In The Heights. If you have followed my writing or my Letterboxd, you may recognize the direct reference to one of my favorite films of all time. Catching that made me look at Usnavi’s narrative arc, allowing me to make a connection that I probably wouldn’t have made, if not for the clear spoken and visual reference to that classic film. There is pure love and goodness that comes out of this movie, which genuinely landed for me. I plan to revisit this film soon, and see if my love grows or lessens…but for now, In the Heights earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.