Review: In the Heights (2021)

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In the Heights (2021)

Directed by: Jon M. Chu | 143 minutes | drama, musical | Actors: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Noah Catala, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mateo Gómez, Marc Anthony, Patrick Page, Olivia Perez, Analia Gomez, Dean Scott Vazquez, Mason Vazquez

Washington Heights is a neighborhood in New York, in the upper part of Manhattan. The vast majority of residents are of Hispanic or Latin American descent. ‘In the Heights’ is the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (‘Hamilton’) acclaimed Broadway musical, an ode to this neighborhood and its residents.

‘In the Heights’ is about several characters who live in this lively neighborhood, but the focus is on Usnavi. Usnavi comes from the Dominican Republic. The parents of this almost thirties are no longer alive, but he still fondly remembers the time when he lived in this paradise on earth. Usnavi’s great wish is to return to his homeland. He was raised by Abuela Claudia, who is a mother figure to more local residents. Usnavi runs a bodega, a neighborhood shop, where everyone comes for coffee, soft drinks or lottery tickets. Usnavi has a secret (or so he thinks) crush on Vanessa, who works at a hair and nail salon. She dreams of a career as a fashion designer, but feels inhibited by where she lives. Her big dream is to move to lower Manhattan, where her chances of making it will be better.

Then we also follow the Puerto Rican Nina. Nina is the quintessential brightest girl in the class, having just returned for the summer break of her freshman year at Stanford University. She is convinced that she is not in the right place there. The prejudices she faced have demotivated her and she feels much more at home in The Heights. But how does she tell that to her father, who not only projects his ambitions on her but also goes to the extreme in his own life to give her the opportunity to continue her studies? Nina’s love interest is her former boyfriend Benny, Usnavi’s best friend, who works for her father’s company. Other supporting characters include Sonny, Usnavi’s nephew who helps out at the bodega, and the gossiping ladies at the beauty parlor where Vanessa works.

The story of ‘In the Heights’ is simple: it is about people with family problems, (unrequited) loves, work and dreams. It’s a slice of life: everyone dreams, everyone struggles – to make ends meet, to make something out of life. However, circumstances change, either by persons in the environment or by the environment itself; how do these people deal with that? The screenplay is ingenious (the chosen narrative structure has an actual function), but it is the choreography and the action that steal the show in this beautiful firework explosion of a film. The music is earworm type, the lyrics are ingenious and the dance scenes – which take up most of the film – keep you glued to the screen. Each of the players is perfectly cast, with Anthony Ramos as the shining centerpiece. What a charisma this young actor has!

‘In the Heights’ is the movie equivalent of some board games: suitable for ages 0 to 99. Jon M. Chu and his team never put the brakes on anything, but they give it their all and that makes for an energetic, cheerful, swinging and sometimes even moving musical, whose main life lesson is that love and flexibility are the greatest strengths of human beings.

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