By Noah Gittell
I have the distinct feeling I watched “In the Heights” wrong. The film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony award-winning musical is designed to be seen on a big screen, where the colors, camera movements, and ample scenes of young, beautiful people making big romantic gestures can overwhelm your senses, and where its saccharine idealism can be more easily overlooked. I saw it in my den, which, even with its 68-inch flatscreen and surround sound speakers, was much too small for a movie as big as this one.
Directed by Jon M. Chu, who brings the same candy-coated palette that he used in “Crazy Rich Asians”, Miranda’s “In the Heights”, his pre-“Hamilton” hit, is a story about a community in transition: Washington Heights. As explained in the show’s titular opening number by bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), it’s a neighborhood built by Latinx immigrants who know and love and take care of one another. Its braided bonds are beginning to fray, however, as young hipsters begin to move in and start buying up small businesses like Usnavi’s. Mercifully, we don’t see much of them; the lens stays close to its handful of homegrown protagonists, who are all struggling with life’s biggest questions, chief among them whether to stick around and fight a losing battle or seek their fame and fortune elsewhere.
For every character, their crisis of identity is paralleled with a romantic dilemma. Usnavi harbors a not-so-secret crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who has moved downtown to study fashion but still hangs around the neighborhood. His friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) works as a dispatcher and is in love with his boss’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who is struggling with the pressure of being a scholarship student at Stanford and is considering moving back. The older generation also has their say. Nina’s father (Jimmy Smits) might have to sell his store to pay her tuition, while Usnavi’s abuela (Olga Merediz) is planning on leaving the neighborhood with Usnavi, who wants to return to the Dominican Republican to reopen his late father’s bar.
The screenplay by Quiara Alegria Hudes, based on her book (Miranda wrote the music and lyrics), smartly skips ahead of many other immigrant stories. The characters in “In the Heights” have already made it to America; now, they’re all trying to figure out what’s next, and in some cases, the goal is to return to where they came from. In a sense, this struggle is familiar; all the characters are figuring out if they’re dreams are worth the cost of cutting ties from home. But in positioning them as (mostly) second-generation immigrants, the film extends the narrative, showing how immigration is not the end of a story but simply a chapter in the middle.
“In the Heights” has a lived-in authenticity — Miranda grew up in the neighborhood it depicts — but it often gets cast aside in favor of slick Hollywood conventions. There’s a flatness to Chu’s direction; despite being set on the hottest days of the year, the sweltering never becomes visceral in summer urban masterpieces like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” or Akira Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog”. And while Chu’s flights of CGI fancy, like the moment in which two characters defy gravity and dance on the side of a building, are apropos for the genre, but clash with the themes of authenticity that pervade the film. All musicals require a substantial suspension of disbelief, but “In the Heights” occasionally reaches too far.
Whenever the film gets into trouble, its effervescent cast lifts it back up. Ramos, who played John Laurens in the original cast production of “Hamilton”, blends a genial presence with profound technical skill — he can handle Miranda’s unorthodox rhyme schemes as well as the author himself — to create a compelling center, and the supporting actors each make the most of their opportunities. Grace, as the conflicted collegiate, gets the most substantive material, and the chemistry between her and Smits is vital to the film’s resonance.
While much of “In the Heights” will feel acutely familiar to anyone from a small town or a tightly knit community, its themes are broad enough to resonate with anyone who has ever struggled with their identity, fought with a parent over their future, or fallen in love. It’s a film that looks to the street and makes a story about the world. Don’t watch it in your den.<“In the Heights” will be released into theaters and on HBO Max on June 11.>