Much of great filmmaking comes down to proper world building, creating a community within the narrative to help bring the audience into an unfamiliar, unique place.
Filmmakers often showcase the worlds in which they come from, which makes authentic portrayals of diverse communities rarer than they should be.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway smash hit took audiences into his community, a melting pot of Latino immigrants from all walks of life. Paired with the vision of “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu, In The Heights pushes underrepresented voices to the forefront of major box office cinema with one of the year’s most vibrant and joyous film.
Based on the Tony Award winning musical, In The Heights follows a summer in the lives of four young residents in the Washington Heights district of New York City, a diverse immigrant community staving off gentrification and generational expectations.
After breaking out in Miranda’s “Hamilton” and the 2018 remake of “A Star is Born,” Anthony Ramos should be a full-fledged star after this performance as Usnavi, a young bodega shop owner with dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to rebuild his father’s beachside bar.
It’s within Ramos’ eyes that audiences are pulled into the world of the film and his everyman persona carries the narrative through its relatively disjointed moments leaping between multiple storylines.
Melissa Barrera is a revelation to American audiences as the Mexican actress breaks out in a big way with a passionate, wide-eyed turn as Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa, who longs to leave her job at the local salon to become a high-end fashion designer.
A secondary love story between Leslie Grace’s Nina and Corey Hawkins’ Benny worked better in the Broadway production than in the film version as neither character gets the full character development needed to get audiences to buy in to their romance.
“NYPD Blue” star Jimmy Smits provides a commanding, fatherly presence as taxi cab company owner Kevin Rosario, while Miranda himself takes on a smaller role as the piragua salesman that doubles as a sort of Greek chorus to reinforce the larger community presence.
The best work in the entire film comes from Olga Merediz, who offers a simply perfect turn as the neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia. In what becomes the emotional core of In The Heights, Merediz personifies the immigrant struggle masterfully over the course of a single song and her portrayal of Abuela’s quiet confidence and faith in God becomes a guiding light for not just the community but the other actors as well.
The tenderness in Abuela and Usnavi’s relationship is exceptional and bridges the gap between the first and second act perfectly.
Chu has the ability to create visual spectacle that becomes cinema magic in short bursts. The style he developed for “Crazy Rich Asians” translates incredibly well for the musical moments in this film. Bright, vivid imagery that radiates joy into the hearts of audiences are perfectly edited to match the rhythms and flows of Miranda’s music.
The bombastic showstopper “96,000” set at a local pool features a cast of nearly a hundred basking in the outdoor sun while slamming their hands into the water and encapsulates the pulse of the community in one hopeful set of images.
Conversely, Chu’s nuanced, almost theatrical take on “Pacencia Y Fe” is far more intimate, trapping audiences in narrow, confining hallways meant to symbolize the struggles immigrants faced in their new life in America. It’s a breathtaking sequence that will likely help Merediz contend for an Academy Award as a supporting actress after earning a Tony nomination for the same role as a part of the original Broadway cast in 2008.
If there are shortcomings to the musical adaptation, the most glaring comes out in between songs as the energy and vibrancy are tempered down by exposition. Chu struggles in these moments to provide the amount of urgency needed to maintain the audience’s attention, but it’s swiftly regained as soon as the next number kicks off.
The driving force of the narrative is a sweltering heat wave that leads to a blackout in the neighborhood, but visually, In The Heights lacks the ability to indicate just how hot it is on the block besides sweat stains on the backs and underarms of shirts even though the characters aren’t sweating themselves.
In The Heights will likely be a popular prediction for major nominations next awards season, but an early June release and the looming West Side Story remake from Steven Spielberg slated this December could leave the crowd-pleaser on the outside looking in.
Film lovers intrigued by In The Heights should make the effort to seek out the film both in theaters and on HBO Max. The musical format lends itself to easy viewings on a streaming service at home as audiences can create their own intermissions between musical sequences and Chu’s visual language makes a perfect backdrop for the casually engaged.
But it’s also important to catch In The Heights on the biggest screen possible, where the spectacle of the vibrant musical can be fully appreciated.
More importantly, it’s a chance to vote with the almighty dollar to convince studios that culturally diverse cinema is not a niche market and offers something for every moviegoer.
In that regard, In The Heights is a true triumph.