Adapted from a Broadway musical, filmmaker Jon M Chu does a fine job of lending a big-screen appeal to the story
In the Heights, set amidst the chirpy neighbourhood of Washington Heights at Manhattan, New York, revolves around a bodega-owner Usnavi, who dreams of relocating to his native, Dominican Republic, provided he wins a lottery. While living with his cousin Sonny, daydreaming of a rosy future by the beaches, he has his eyes set on the gorgeous Vanessa, a gifted artist who pays her bills with a small-time job at a salon. Usnavi's emotional anchor, though, is Abuela Claudia, a matriarch of the community, who had raised him after the death of his parents. His ambitious friend, Nina, has meanwhile just returned from Stanford (University) and is about to drop a bombshell that would turn her father Kevin's life upside down. How would these people make a home away from home?
The very idea of telling a story through music may be as old as the hills, but you can't deny the colour and flavour it brings to seemingly mundane situations in a narrative. In the Heights, if not for a musical, would've been a seemingly dark story documenting immigrant struggles in an American neighbourhood. However, as a musical, this story attains so much vigour and flavour, almost unfolding like a celebration where the music feels like a catharsis that helps the characters take an inward look with a sense of hope.
Inspired by the Broadway musical of the same name, the film's premise feels almost timeless and ever-relevant in a world where everyone is made to feel like an outsider across various spheres. As a film, In the Heights has every ingredient in the right measure, from music to romance to heartfelt emotions and a hopeful happily-ever-after ending with the right mix of cinematic flourish and realism. The narrative, while rooted in its setting, has an undeniable universal appeal, fleshing out its characters, their deep-rooted ambiguities and aspirations in detail.
Nearly every second character in the film dreams of moving out of their neighbourhood to seek greener pastures but can't do without each other through their thick and thin. In the Heights doesn't go by the stereotypical 'antagonist-protagonist' approach to a story - this is more of a film where every character is trying to find a way to fight their inner (and sometimes external) demons. A bodega owner isn't courageous enough to express his love, a graduate loses her way despite an admission at Stanford, a father struggles to pay for his daughter's university education and an artist feels lost doing a mundane job at a salon.
There are many layers to the story tackling racism, colourism, immigrant rights, access to education, job market and yet the issues aren't thrown at your face like a typical 'activist' film. Even for a regular viewer seeking escapist pleasure, there are two heart-warming love stories, heartbreaks, dance routines, flavourful cinematography (Alice Brooks), eye-catchy production design (by Nelson Coates and of course, music). Yet, there are a few all-too-rosy moments where the characters' struggles are sugarcoated in the name of cinematic liberty.
Anthony Ramos is an apt choice to headline the film as the good-hearted yet socially awkward youngster Usnavi. It's easy to be distracted by Melissa Barrera's earth-shatteringly good looks, but watch out for how she submits herself honestly to a role that's a lost soul at heart. Olga Merediz lends gravitas to her matriarch act with assurance, while the likes of Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera chip in with confident performances.
In the Heights is a delightful on-screen adaptation of a Broadway musical, ably helmed by director Jon M Chu with the right balance of scale, cinematic appeal, soul and a purposeful story. The musical is lively, colourful and celebratory in its execution and boasts of charming performances by its lead cast, namely Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera. The leisurely narration spanning 150-minutes may take time to grow on you but leaves a profound impact as it progresses.
(The film is currently streaming on BookMyShow Stream)