Movie Review: In the Heights (2021)

Warner Bros. – in theatres and streaming on HBO Max.

A joyful ode to “finding your island”even when it’s a place where you’ve been all along, Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights (B) is a faithful and often fanciful extravaganza with creative song sequences showcasing camaraderie and community, athletic choreography featuring hundreds of dancers and a colorful panoramic tour of the Washington Heights neighborhood in the uppermost part of the New York City borough of Manhattan. The sing-speak spectacular is a celebration of the trials, travails and cultural contributions of Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants in a one-of-a-kind district; and as a whole, the mirthful, hopeful energy transcends a threadbare storyline by highlighting various choose-your-own pathways to big dreams (sueñitos). The individual characters get short shrift in the bombast and swirl, and Chu shifts tone and perspective a few too many times including with an unnecessary framing device; but these are small complaints in a film of overall genuine goodness. The female performances surrounding a charismatic Anthony Ramos as the shopkeeper narrator are the breakout stars, particularly Melissa Barrera as an aspiring fashion designer who wants to escape her humble roots and Leslie Grace as the high-achieving student returning from a first semester of college with her tail between her legs, hoping to be renewed by the uplift of her neighborhood. Both actresses imbue their characters with sweet sentiment and occasional pent-up ferocity. Much of the musical infusion plays out Rent-style, with young characters professing love amidst struggle. After a maudlin middle act that brings the film’s festive outlook to a bit of a halt with some clunky sequences, it is a delightful Daphne Rubin-Vega as a firebrand beautician who brings the film roaring back to life. The best moments fuse winning songs with creative harmonies or set pieces, especially as the film’s community denizens rally within an oversized Esther Williams inspired pool or as two lovers defy gravity by dancing up and down the side of a brownstone high-rise. This film will be remembered for its verve and representation, for bursts of brilliance that are maintained in spurts. When it hits those titular heights, though, oh how it soars!

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