In the Heights is one of the many movies coming out this year that was meant to have released in 2020, and in this case, the delay feels like a gift. We are transitioning into a summer more optimistic than the one before, and there is no better film to kick it off than this 148-minute capsule of unrestrained, joyful spectacle. I will honestly be surprised if In the Heights doesn’t become a bit of a phenomenon, outpacing projections and building momentum that carries it all the way to Awards Season – even though I watched at home through HBO Max, I would happily shell out for a ticket just to see it with an audience. My assessment of the film itself is a bit less rapturous, especially compared to its stellar press thus far, but even for someone not easily wooed by the musical genre, the energy of this viewing experience is undeniable.
Directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning precursor to Hamilton, In the Heights tells the story of one summer in Washington Heights, a heavily Latinx neighborhood in uppermost Manhattan. Centered around local Bodega-owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who narrates the story to a group of children years later, the film follows several inhabitants from a variety of backgrounds, each struggling to understand their place in a changing neighborhood. As the scorching hot summer builds to a blackout, tensions rise over Usnavi’s impending move to his native Dominican Republic, testing whether the tightknit Heights community can survive the shifting landscape.
Aside from being infectiously fun for audiences, the greatest success of Chu’s approach to Miranda’s musical is the way it brings this neighborhood to life. The energy behind the production design, choreography, and camera movement mirrors the community’s deep, charged bond, which then appears to be causing all these outbursts of song-and-dance. The Heights itself then responds with expressionistic flourishes that bend the world around how the characters feel, manifesting their memories and coaxing inanimate objects to dance along with them. This is most successful when the scope is at its biggest, capturing this feeling of collective celebration, or at its smallest, diving into a single person’s state of mind – the “Paciencia y Fe” number, in which neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) reflects on the difficult road she traveled to her current happiness, will live in my memory for some time.
As with most movies that move at this pace, however, I believe this would have benefitted from even just a couple of moments of stillness. The vibrancy of this film is potent, but for much of the runtime, I found myself wanting to be more invested in some of the key relationships (particularly the romances) than I was. In the Heights is successful enough in this area for it not to be an issue, but with a little more breathing room for the viewer to connect with the performances as more than part of the spectacle, this might have reached transcendent territory. But that’s really a criticism to revisit when assessing the film in retrospect. For now, you’ll be way too swept up in the joyful celebration of life to care.