REVIEW: ‘In the Heights’ is a joyous celebration of culture and community

“In the Heights’’ is vibrant and exciting, but more importantly, it provides a heartfelt story and showcases the beauty and diversity of Latino American culture. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic causing delays to production, it was well worth the patience and faith.

“In the Heights” is an adaptation of the 2008 Broadway musical of the same name written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes; both being producers for the movie. Many changes were made from stage to screen — but theater kids need not fret, the charm of the musical is thoroughly maintained.

Jon M. Chu serves as the director, maintaining the directing style he was praised for in 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians.” Among many other aspects, his direction is simultaneously intimate and grounded, yet whimsical and dynamic in the way only musicals can be.

However, the praise for that aspect can’t just rely on Chu. The combination of set design, costumes and a vivacious ensemble brings to life a picture of Washington Heights that feels just as lived-in as real life, not to mention how the film was shot on location. It brings together a feeling of actual community, topped off by the spectacular dance capability of the ensemble in numbers such as “96,000” and “Carnaval del Barrio”. The latter number also serves to emphasize and celebrate the history of perseverance in the primarily Latino community.

Anthony Ramos stars as Usnavi de la Vega, a bodega owner who dreams of returning to his home country of the Dominican Republic. Ramos provides a charming portrayal, and his immaculate sense of rhythm does justice to the rap-influenced score of the musical. De la Vega’s romance with Vanessa, an ambitious young fashion designer played by Melissa Barrera, is rife with chemistry as well.

One of the most outstanding cast members had to be Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela Claudia, an older woman with no children who is generally regarded as a grandmother to the entire neighborhood. She provides a truly heartwarming performance, and her standout number, “Paciencia y Fe” genuinely moved me to tears. Her identity as a Cuban American stands out in this number, with the scenery and costumes switching back and forth from evoking her childhood in Cuba to her current life in New York City.

The movie is quite long at a runtime of two hours and 23 minutes, but lengths over two hours are standard for musical adaptations, and the movie is so captivating that you may not notice how much time has passed until it’s already finished. The songs will have you dancing in your seat the entire way through, with an upbeat soundtrack influenced by salsa and rap.

Another important note is the inclusion of modern political movements in the musical. The insertion of politics into adaptational works is generally seen as taboo, but as the initial musical celebrates Latino American identities, it benefits from updated discussions of gentrification and the rights of undocumented individuals. In particular, Usnavi’s scrappy younger cousin Sonny (played by Gregory Diaz IV) is reconceived as an undocumented immigrant brought to the U.S. by his parents as an infant. His story provides an important voice for an oppressed group that’s rarely represented in film, and handles the subject matter with grace and compassion.

Racism in higher education is also examined, discussing the racism that Nina Rosario (played by Leslie Grace) faces when studying at Stanford. As the first in her family to go to college, she feels overburdened by both the economic strain and alienation she faces at an Ivy League school. The pressure she faces from her doting father sacrificing his business also weighs on her, leading to a grounded exploration of familial pressures on first generation college students.

Overall, the movie is certainly worth a watch, especially for fans of musicals. It took big risks with its adaptational changes, but those changes paid off, providing a uniquely charming musical to start off the summer.

The film can be seen in theatres or on HBO Max.

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