Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning stage musical makes a successful transition to the big screen, with Jon M Chu’s direction really capturing the community spirit at the heart of the piece. Washington Heights is a Manhattan suburb, home to a diverse range of Latin-American people. The film is a raucous celebration of Latinx culture, and – although it touches briefly on issues of poverty, racism and immigration – it’s essentially joyful: a sweet love story; “there’s no place like home.”
Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, owner of a corner store/bodega, who dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s beach bar. He’s got a bit of a thing for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in a nail salon, although she really wants to be a fashion designer. Meanwhile, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) has come back home from Stanford University for the summer, and – though the whole-neighbourhood’s in awe of her achievements – she’s decided not to return. The grass isn’t always greener, and she misses belonging. At Stanford, she will always be an outsider.
Christopher Scott’s choreography is sublime: it’s vibrant and sexy and sometimes dizzyingly gorgeous. The huge ensemble cast are expertly utilised. There’s a scene on the fire escape that almost literally takes my breath away, and the Busby Berkeley-esque synchronised swimming provides another unexpected delight. The cinematography (by Chu and Alice Brooks) is also spectacular: you can feel the heat rising from every shot, shimmering and crackling, and – during the blackout – it’s genuinely oppressive. The neighbourhood is fully realised, and captured with love.
The film is long; some might say too long. Even though it’s bursting with energy and sparky, likeable characters, it does start to flag at around the eighty-minute mark, and there’s still more than an hour to go. A little tightening wouldn’t go amiss, but – in spite of this – watching In the Heights is, on the whole, a fun way to spend an afternoon.
Although I’m captivated, I sadly find myself at odds with the film’s underlying message, which seems to be an exhortation to appreciate what you have and stay put. I love the community pride that is feted so exuberantly here, but I’m also perturbed by the ‘don’t try anything new’ connotation, which literally nobody gets to challenge. It feels right for Usnavi to realise that home is where the heart is, that he already has exactly what he needs, but the same doesn’t ring true for Vanessa – or Nina. I wish there was more nuance here.
I’d probably like a bit more grit too, if I’m honest. The racism Nina encounters at Stanford is delivered almost as an aside; the plight of DREAMers only briefly touched upon. These are urgent, interesting topics, and there’s space here, I think, for a little more depth, more heft. As it is, In the Heights is lovely, but ephemeral. I can’t see it lingering in my mind, or having a lasting impact.
Still, if what you’re seeking is escapism, this movie more than ticks the box.