Review: ‘In the Heights,’ starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jimmy Smits

May 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera (center) in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“In the Heights” 

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, this movie version of the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” features a predominantly Hispanic group of characters (with some African Americans and white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young Dominican American man living in New York City’s Washington Heights is torn between staying in the neghborhood or moving to his family’s native Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s tiki bar.

Culture Audience: “In the Heights” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in Broadway musicals with contemporary music and movies about Hispanic American culture.

Corey Hawkins and Melissa Grace in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” brings a cinematic vibrancy that makes it a joy to watch on screen and an instant crowd-pleaser. The movie keeps the main storyline and themes intact from the Broadway show but adds some memorable set designs, eye-popping choreography and impressive visual effects that couldn’t be done in a theater stage production. And this well-cast movie also has standout performances that will be sure to charm fans of the Broadway show as well as win over new fans. The “In the Heights” movie is set to have its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, “In the Heights” has an adapted screenplay written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for Broadway’s “In the Heights,” which takes place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The movie version of “In the Heights” keeps the same songs from the stage musical, whose music and lyrics were written by Miranda. The movie is updated to include more social-awareness themes related to Dreamers, the nickname for undocumented children of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

The “In the Heights” movie, just like the stage musical, combines several character storylines in a tale that ultimately adds up to love in many different forms. There’s the love that 29-year-old protagonist/bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (played by Anthony Ramos) has for his family, his Washington Heights neighborhood and his family’s native Dominican Republic. During the course of the story, he also falls in love with aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (played by Melissa Barrera), who also lives in Washington Heights. Usnavi is somewhat shy around assertive Vanessa, who plays hard to get, but eventually Vanessa falls for Usnavi too.

Romance is also in the air for car dispatch operator Benny (played by Corey Hawkins) and college student Nina Rosario (played by Leslie Grace), who has come home to Washington Heights while on a break from her studies at California’s Stanford University. Benny is easygoing and respectful, while Nina is intelligent and compassionate. Nina’s strong-willed and doting father also happens to be Benny’s boss: Rosario’s Car Service owner Kevin Rosario (played by Jimmy Smits), who is immensely proud that his daughter is a Stanford student, and he will do what it takes to pay her university tuition.

The beloved “grandmother” of the neighborhood is Abuela Claudia (played by Olga Merediz), who doesn’t have kids of her own, but she has a nuturing, maternal attitude toward many people in Washington Heights. Claudia is particularly close to Usnavi, whose parents are deceased. Usnavi, who is an only child, moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 8 years old. And since his parents’ death, Usnavi has become even closer to Claudia. Meanwhile, Usnavi has also known Nina for several years, and he treats Nina like she’s his younger sister.

Usnavi is a mentor to his smart and wisecracking teenage cousin Sonny (played by Gregory Diaz IV), who works part-time in Usnavi’s bodega. Sonny needs a mentor because he has an alcoholic father named Gapo (played by Marc Anthony), who is the brother of Usnavi’s father. A local attorney named Alejandro (played by Mateo Gomez) plays a key role in facilitating what becomes Usnavi’s dream: to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open a beachfront tiki bar called El Suenito that used to be owned by Usnavi’s late father.

Rounding out the story’s main characters are “The Salon Ladies,” a trio of sassy and opinionated beauty salon workers: Daniela (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega), who is the salon’s owner; Carla (played by Stephanie Beatriz), who is Daniela’s much-younger live-in lover; and Cuca (played by Dascha Polanco), who is their loyal sidekick friend. Vanessa works in the salon too, but she’d rather be a fashion designer. A graffiti artist named Graffiti Pete (played by Noah Catala) is one of Usnavi’s friends. There’s also a character named Pike Phillips (played by Patrick Page), who owns a dry cleaning business next door to Rosario’s Car Service, and he plays a role that affects the fate of a few of the characters’ fortunes.

“In the Heights” creator Miranda has a small role in the movie as a sarcastic street vendor named Piragüero, who sells piragua/shaved ice. Keep watching through the movie’s ending credits to see a comical scene of Miranda’s Piragüero getting into a spat with a Mr. Softee ice cream truck driver, played by Christopher Jackson, who is Miranda’s best friend and longtime Broadway co-star. It’s an example of the touches of humor in an otherwise dramatic story.

The movie begins with Usnavi in a tropical beach setting, telling four kids (about 4 to 6 years old) the story about his life in Washington Heights. The four children are Iris (played by Olivia Perez), Rosa (played by Analia Gomez), Sedo (played by Dean Vazquez) and Migo (played by Mason Vazquez). The kids are very attentive and adorable. But it’s clear that Iris is the most intelligent and inquisitive out of all of them.

Usnavi’s story is about the sweltering summer when he decided he was going to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open El Suenito. What follows is an immersive, rollercoaster ride of a story, with plenty of joy, heartbreak, fear and love. It begins with various cast members performing “In the Heights,” in an epic sequence where viewers are introduced to Usnavi’s life in Washington Heights and all the people he’s close to in the neighborhood.

Other tunes performed by cast members in the movie are “Benny’s Dispatch,” “Breathe,” “You’ll Be Back” “No Me Diga,” “It Won’t Be Long Now,” “Cuando Llega el Tren,” “96,000,” “Piragua,” “Always,” “When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout,” “Paciencia Y Fe,” “Carnaval Del Barrio,” “Alabanza,” “Champagne,” “When the Sun Goes Down,” “Home All Summer” and “Finale.” Some of set designs for “In the Heights” are a visual treat and enhance these musical numbers. Two examples that are highlights are the massive synchronized swimming scene in a public swimming pool for “96,000,” and when Benny and Nina (with the help of visual effects) duet on “When You’re Home” with some gymnast-like moves on the side of an apartment building.

An electrical blackout happens in the middle of this summer heatwave. The movie has a timetable of events before and after the blackout. It’s a blackout that changes the lives of the characters, some more dramatically than others.

“In the Heights” is rich with Hispanic culture and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans and people from Central and South America are celebrated in some way in the movie. And Usnavi’s desire to move back to the Dominican Republic is indicative of not only honoring his family but also reconnecting with his Dominican roots.

Nina represents the experience of people from Hispanic families who are the first to get a chance to graduate from a prestigious university in the United States. On the one hand, Nina is considered an exalted role model for the community and has all the pressures that come with it. On the other hand, Nina describes the pain of racism and not feeling like she fits in a privileged, predominantly white setting such as Stanford.

During a few of the movie’s more poignant scenes, Nina describes how her Stanford experience isn’t as glamorous as people in Washington Heights might think it is. Nina talks about how she was wrongfully accused of theft by her white Stanford roommate. And on another occasion, Nina attended a diversity dinner at Stanford, and someone wrongfully assumed that she was one of the servers.

All of the cast members are admirable in their roles, but the standouts are Ramos, Grace and Merediz, whose characters go through the biggest emotional arcs in the movie. Merediz’s performance of “Paciencia Y Fe” will simply give people chills. It’s the type of scene that will have audiences moved to applaud and cheer loudly. Grace is also a very talented singer/actress who can convincingly portray feelings without over-emoting like someone performing on a theater stage.

And as the story’s protagonist/narrator Usnavi, Ramos carries the movie with charm and vulnerability. He’s not super-confident when courting Vanessa, and he’s often teased about his insecurities by his observant cousin Sonny. For the two big romances in the movie (Usnavi and Vanessa; Benny and Nina), it isn’t about whether or not these two couples will get together. It’s more about if they can stay together, considering that they have long-distance issues that could wreck their relationships.

Whether or not people got a chance to see “In the Heights” on stage, the movie is a lively celebration in its own right. It’s a story with universal and relevant themes that can be understood by people of any generation. And the movie brings new dimensions and nuances to the story that will inspire people to see it multiple times, preferably on the biggest screen possible.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “In the Heights” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on June 10, 2021. The release date was moved up from June 11, 2021.