In the Heights | Film Review

“Every big dream starts with a dreamer. Always remember that you have the strength, patience and passion within you to reach for the stars to change the world.”
– Harriet Tubman, African American abolitionist

In the Heights is a vibrant, energetic, and emotionally rich cinematic adaptation of the Broadway show that won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. It’s powered by freestyle rap, salsa, meringue, and Spanish music with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Algria Hudes. Other inspiring and entertaining aspects of this film include massive and dynamic dance numbers, including a great sequence in a large swimming pool, choreographed by Christopher Scott and creative production design by Nelson Coates. The whole company is masterfully led by Jon M. Chu.

The story takes place over a period of three days as residents of the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, Queens, New York endure a scorching summer heatwave and power outage. The oppressive weather weighs heavily on the first and second generation immigrants of this Latinx community. Many of the elders would love to return to the Dominican Republic (DR) while their younger relatives want to make the Heights their permanent home.

We learn immediately that these are dreamers. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs a bodega that sells lottery tickets, candy, drinks and groceries, has what he calls his “Suenito”, a little dream. He wants to go back to the DR and renovate his dead father’s beach bar. He wants Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the matriarch of the parish, and his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) to come with him. But he’s also very attracted to Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). She has her own dream of moving to downtown Manhattan to pursue a career as a clothing designer.

Leslie Grace as Nina and Jimmy Smits as her father

Dreams, we soon learn, do not always develop as the community expects. This is the experience of Nina (Leslie Grace), the popular girl and academic star in high school who received a Stanford scholarship. But after experiencing discrimination in California, she moved back to the neighborhood and reconnected with Benny (Corey Hawkins), her old friend. In two scenes she only pauses to listen appreciatively to the sounds of “my block”. She fears that other Washington Heights people, including her father (Jimmy Smits), will be disappointed with her.

“There is no vocabulary
For love within a family, love that is lived
But not looked at, love in its light
everything else is seen. “
– TS Eliot in The Elder Statesman

In the Heights shows the vocabulary of love in different families and in a diverse group of neighbors. The longing for belonging is strong here. Screenwriter Quiara Akegra Hudes has said on the subject:

‚ÄúThis is not about a hero or protagonist, but what happens when a community holds their hands together and life somehow pushes those hands apart. It’s about those blocks and those living rooms that you go to after school and do your homework or play bingo during a power outage. It’s all here. ”

In the barrio where these characters are exposed to unexpected situations, little things play a role, such as a power outage, the high cost of college, the hope that is awakened by a high-paying lottery ticket, the longing to be free from racial discrimination The disappointments of parents who want what they think is best for their children, the escape from the heat in a large public swimming pool, and the playfulness of women gossiping and talking about sex in a local salon.

Olga Merediz as Grandma Claudia

Perhaps the strongest advocate of the community is Abuela Claudia, who teaches what is known in spiritual circles as the “Little Path”. It’s the little things that tell the world that we are not invisible, she explains, and so each of us has to assert our dignity a little. “She sang the praises of things we ignore,” Usnavi added. (See the teaching scene linked from this review.)

By the end of this movie, you’ll find that the characters showed us what it means to embody this quote from writer Maya Angelou:

“My mission in this life is not just to survive, but to thrive; with a little passion, a little compassion, a little humor and style.”

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