In the Heights (2021)
Directed by Jon M. Chu
I don’t care whether you’re watching it in a movie theater or at home on HBO Max—if you don’t stand up and dance at some point during the unstoppably joyous “In the Heights,” you need to get your heart examined. Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household name because of “Hamilton,” but he became a Tony winner because of “In the Heights.” A film adaptation was supposed to precede “Hamilton,” but a series of setbacks eventually led to its release now, more than a decade after the musical’s Broadway debut. No matter. Regardless of the release date, “In the Heights” is a timely and beautiful story for the big screen.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a bodega in Washington Heights, a mostly-Dominican neighborhood in northern Manhattan, but he dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to reopen the shop his deceased father used to operate on the island. As the neighborhood gentrifies, businessmen like Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) have to fight for storefront space with newer, wealthier residents. Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), home for the summer after her first year at Stanford, is dealing with the pressure of being the first in her family to go to college, while her boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins) is struggling with facing another year without her in New York. Meanwhile, Abuela (Olga Merediz, the only one reprising her role from Broadway) watches over everyone as the matriarch. When a blackout hits on the hottest day of the year, all this pressure will come to a boil.
Anthony Ramos got his big break in 2015, when he originated the roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton when “Hamilton” premiered on Broadway. He cut his teeth on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s unique musical syntax, so he had the ultimate practice to take over the role Miranda originated on stage in 2008 (a role he received a Tony nomination for playing). Ramos gives one of the best leading performances through the first half of this admittedly not-busy year in cinema. I was also impressed with Corey Hawkins, who first arrived on the scene in 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton,” where he played a young Dr. Dre. His singing chops are on full display in the song titled “Benny’s Dispatch.” The song also sets up the terrific chemistry between his character and Leslie Grace’s. Her voice is matched by her talent as a young actress—despite this being the Latin Grammy-nominated singer’s first work in feature film. Olga Merediz, reprising her role as Abuela, didn’t blow me away until her solo number, but that alone should put her in the Best Supporting Actress conversation. Though the ensemble is too big to list, I can’t avoid mentioning a trio of actresses playing beauticians. Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) and Dascha Polanco (“Orange is the New Black”) deliver singing, dancing, and well-timed comedy throughout the film. Their work was consistently a joy to behold.
If you are vaccinated but haven’t yet returned to a movie theater since early last year, I urge you to take this opportunity to take that step now. During one five-minute scene, more than 500 extras sing and dance in and around a public pool. The scope of the film is at times breathtaking. It’s a wonderful theatrical experience. But I would encourage anyone with HBO Max to stream the film from home, if you prefer. Whichever way you take this movie in, I am sure it will be enjoyed.