Review: In the Heights is a slightly watery Summer treat

The long-awaited Summer gateway movie is inventive and charming, if a bit hollow. 

Here it is, just shy of one year since its original June 2020 premiere date, the musical movie event to launch you into Hot Girl Summer 2021. Adapted from the 2008 Tony Award-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, the story of a group of residents of Manhattan’s largely-Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood is a piece of classic Hollywood tinsel polished up with modern flash. A stellar cast, diabolically addictive songs, and confident and inventive direction from Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) overcome thin characters and limp camerawork to create a bright, joyful cinematic experience that will quench a post-pandemic theater-goer’s thirst like a cold piragua on a hot Summer day.

The film opens on the white sand beaches of the Dominican Republic, where Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos, perfectly cast) tells a group of local children the story of how he came to settle in this idyllic beachside locale. It’s risky to use a framing device that places Usnavi at the end of his own story, but the worthwhile payoff is something you’ll have to discover for yourself. We’re introduced to the cast of characters as they trickle in and out of Usnavi’s Washington Heights bodega some years earlier. There’s Usnavi’s young shop assistant Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) who works at the car dispatch service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) whose daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) has just returned from her first year at Stanford University. Olga Merediz plays the beloved neighborhood matriarch Claudia, with Melissa Barrera as Usnavi’s long-time crush Vanessa. The story takes place over a 3-day heat wave leading up to a blackout, where Usnavi, Nina, and Vanessa must decide what path their lives will take. Will Usnavi decamp to the Dominican Republic to revive his father’s beachside bar? Will Nina return to Stanford? Will Vanessa escape her dead-end life in the Heights for an upscale apartment in the West Village?

Hudes returns to adapt the screenplay from the 2008 musical (originally produced in 2005) and has given the story a modern refresh to better represent the Washington Heights of the 2020s. It speaks to the lack of representation in popular media that In The Heights feels the need to cram every possible facet of the New York Hispanic experience into one sitting. Though the word “Uber” is never uttered, Rosario’s car dispatch service is struggling and local beauty shop owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is being priced out of the neighborhood. Sonny is now an activist for DACA kids, and the financial hardship scuttling Nina’s Stanford ambitions in the original musical has been replaced with the more timely experience of racism and alienation at a majority-white university. 

This updated and overambitious screenplay never quite succeeds in bringing its many disparate plot threads together, instead bouncing from storyline to storyline in an attempt to keep each respective ball in the air. Nina’s story of alienation as a first-generation college student could be its own film, while Vanessa’s frustration with, uh, having a low credit score?, could be cut entirely. And do we really need the scenes detailing the war between the Piragua Guy (Miranda) and the Mister Softee truck? (The answer is yes, because those scenes are delightful.)

In adapting the musical from stage to screen, Chu and choreographer Christopher Scott make full use of the cinematic playground. Characters dance up the sides of buildings; write messages in the air; and perform an all-singing, all-vogueing Busby Berkeley-style number in a New York public pool. The innovative flight of fancy on display is a refreshing departure from the suffocating trend of plausible realism that has plagued otherwise fantastical genres in the last decade. In The Heights is a pirouetting, candy-colored extravaganza, which is why it’s so frustrating to see such impressive visuals robbed of their energy by DP Alice Brooks’ flat, listless camerawork. The camera floats aimlessly through scenes, cycling through the same movements over and over so that a raucous dance party or an intimate character moment both suffer from the same lack of urgency.

The film has no shortage of superb performers, but the jam-packed story often fails to provide its actors with enough time to explore their characters beyond the most boilerplate emotional stereotypes. The two female leads are the most ill-served by this approach, their characters’ complex problems flattened to the point that both the immensely talented Barrera and Grace struggle to come across as anything more than mopey. Merediz’s scenes as the angelic Claudia pack the most emotional punch, but you never really get to know her which makes those scenes far less resonant than they could be. Hawkins radiates energy and charm every moment he’s on screen and makes the most out of a character that serves little purpose beyond a shoulder for other characters to cry on. 

I really liked In the Heights, but I wanted to love it. All the elements are there: a young, talented cast; bright, go-for-broke dance sequences; and Miranda’s wonderful music (I’ve been humming the piragua song for a week) — and yet! For all their razzle dazzle the musical numbers never really got my heart pumping or my spine tingling, and the story lacks a strong emotional core to give it staying power. In the Heights is absolutely worth your time and money, and will no doubt be remembered as a definitive post-pandemic cultural experience. Whether it will endure as one of the all-time great movie musicals is less certain. But damn it, it’s Summer 2021 and we deserve all the pleasures we can get, even if they’re a bit hollow.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.