‘In the Heights’ Soars High Amidst Its Emotionally Scattered Ambitions

NICHOLAS CHANG | REPEAT OFFENDERS



Some films deserve to be seen on the big screen because of the joyous and heartfelt experiences they provide at the theatres. That’s where In the Heights comes in. Based on the musical of the same name by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Algería Hudes, In the Heights transitions from stage to screen through Jon M. Chu’s direction. The result is incredibly flawed and uneven, but the well-intentioned Hispanic representation and entertaining musical numbers are enough to make up for the film adaptation’s shortcomings.


Set in a predominantly Dominican Washington Heights neighbourhood of Upper Manhattan in New York City, In the Heights follows multiple characters in the community who aim to pursue their dreams of a better life: Usnavi de la Vaga (Anthony Ramos), the owner of a bodega who considers reviving his father’s late business in the Dominican Republic, Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera) who dreams of being a fashion designer and on whom Usnavi has an unrequited crush, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) who is dissatisfied with her tuition from Stanford University, her father Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) who runs a taxi company, his employee Benny (Corey Hawkins) who falls in love with Nina, Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) who runs a salon with her co-workers and friends Carla (Stephanie Beatrix) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) while struggling to pay rising rent, Piragüero (Lin-Manuel Miranda) whose piragua business struggles in his current climate, and finally, “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), the neighbourhood matriarch who has impacted virtually everyone’s lives in the community.

With each storyline, In the Heights raises questions about the values of community, cultural identity, heritage and family, reflecting on gentrification and post-immigration experiences. Its themes are further enriched by Latinx and Hispanic representations that create authenticity in the film’s culturally diverse setting. In light of accusations regarding the film’s alleged colourism, In the Heights doesn’t fully represent every audience, and that is an impossible task to achieve. Still, there should be enough character substance surrounding ambition, individuality, and dreams to make the viewing experience easily identifiable for anyone. In the Heights also beneficially makes the most out of its performers since the cast has proven experiences in musical theatre, and they hand in vocally passionate – and emotionally fuelled – performances. In particular, Merediz’s sole musical number about her character’s childhood and hardships is symbolically resonant – one that, despite deviating from the main plot, is emotionally affecting to watch, nevertheless.


However, In the Heights’s universal appeal doesn’t cover up many of the writing flaws that plague the film. It’s a musical where the numbers and style are bound to shine most, and although the lyrics effectively tell the story, the plot lacks focus. In its attempts to focus on the central community of Washington Heights, In the Heights jumps from one character story to another, but sometimes the unbalanced time spent on many of the characters leads to some insufficient depths, uneven pacing and a strangely bloated 143-minute runtime. Having never seen the original musical, I can’t comment on how In the Heights is faithful (or not) to its source material (and I hear the film made several changes). But something may have been lost in the translation to the screen, and although the film soars high with its emotional ambitions, I strangely didn’t find myself that deeply moved.


Although the storytelling can feel monotonous and leads to mixed results, it doesn’t take away from In the Heights’s true heart, which is evident in Jon M. Chu’s well-realised vision and style. The musical numbers are visually stunning to watch, with some breathtaking choreography that highlights unity and terrific attention to detail. All the music composed by Miranda, Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman altogether are catchy, but some autotuning spoils In the Heights’s largely pleasant compositions. Despite some distracting lens flare, Alice Brook’s colourful cinematography makes the theatrical experience even more riveting and highlights Latinx joy, further allowing the film’s noble intentions to shine. Unfortunately, the editing’s attempts to further stylise In the Heights’s technical achievements become a bit excessive, leading to musical numbers feeling unintentionally choppy. As a result, the editing sometimes feels fast-paced while creating continuity errors and awkwardly cutting between characters and shots too quickly.


But even when In the Heights makes some flawed stylistic and storytelling choices, the overall theatrical experience remains powerful. It’s not a film that exploits the current climate and the hardships of Latinx and Hispanic communities; it’s a musical that celebrates the power of community and heritage. In essence, In the Heights is an uplifting and feel-good experience that provides increasingly relevant escapism for audiences in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while it didn’t turn me into a new fan of musicals, it left me entertained to warrant an overall recommendation.


Score: 6/10.