Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
IN THE HEIGHTS
Rated PG-13, 2 hours and 23 minutes
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Throughout director Jon M. Chu’s career, he’s continually intertwined the language and rhythm of music with those of cinema. From stories steeped in song like STEP UP 3-D and JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, to the brash, witty showmanship of NOW YOU SEE ME 2, to CRAZY RICH ASIANS’ lushly layered marriage of culture and soundscape, he always brings a lyrical, infectious energy to the proceedings. With IN THE HEIGHTS, Chu combines that aesthetic with classic Hollywood inspirations, bountifully texturing homages to create a thoroughly modern and purposeful statement. This silver screen version is nothing short of a feel-good, joyful sensation. Bursting with life, love and melody, it amplifies the mega-wattage of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show, transforming it into a jubilant cinematic experience. Deeply compelling and beautifully realized, it’s the film you’ll want to mark down for your return to theaters.
Washington Heights is a tight-knit community in New York City where everyone feels like family. Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) helps to power the neighborhood, running the corner bodega with his nephew Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). But his goal – his “sueñito” – is fulfilling his father’s dream for him to return to the Dominican Republic to open up a small seaside business. He’s also majorly crushing on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an enterprising, intelligent beauty who has dreams of her own involving fashion school.
Usnavi’s job brings him into contact with those who live and work in the area, like Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns a successful town car business, and Benny (Corey Hawkins), Kevin’s tender-hearted, smart employee who is in love with Benny’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace). She’s returning home from college on the West Coast after an incident at school profoundly shifted her worldview. Other customers include the gossiping beauty salon gals – Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Cuca (Dascha Polanco) and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) – and the revered heart of their community, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz). Over the course of a few days, during a summer heatwave, the neighborhood experiences a major shift in its identity.
Film is a communal, collaborative effort, and the forces that come together to create this cinematic splendor do so in spectacular fashion. Chu and company demonstrate dexterity within each of the unique, massive show-stopping numbers – from the fantastical elements employed in the beauty salon in “No Me Diga,” to the audacious Busby Berkeley-meets-Esther Williams performance of synchronized swimmers and breakdancers in “96,000.” Grounded numbers that are tied together, like Nina and Benny’s two heartrending ballads “When You’re Home” and “When The Sun Goes Down,” individually have distinct looks yet keep the action centered on the couple’s love. Each of these worlds that Manuel’s compositions guide us through are specifically tailored to fit the sonic stylings. This ingenious collective achieves a symbiosis between Nelson Coates’ poignant production design, Alice Brooks’ sparkling cinematography, Mitchell Travers’ colorful costume design, Myron Kerstein’s clean edits, and Christopher Scott’s awe-inducing choreography.
The ensemble assembled is out-of-this-world stellar. Ramos and Hawkins turn in top shelf performances. Grace gives a career-defining turn, making us feel impacted by the push-pull of her conflicts. She capably taps into her character’s vulnerabilities with strength, grace and empathy. Rubin-Vega, Polanco and Beatriz are a dynamically forceful trio who make a delicious snack out of their screen time. Merediz, who was nominated for a Tony for her role on stage, is a graceful powerhouse. Her magnitude is highlighted not only during her neon lit solo, “Paciencia Y Fe,” but also in the quieter moments where her character finds resilience amongst her familial community.
There are a few minor blights that cloud this gem. The run time’s length lends itself to a few pacing issues, where the picture experiences brief lulls. Not all character arcs are as strong as others, specifically when it comes to Vanessa’s. Her internal and external stakes aren’t brought together nearly as cohesively as her love interest’s. That said, Barrera’s star-making work outshines any misgivings in her lackluster material.
The importance of preserving (not gentrifying) cultures and communities like the one showcased in this adaptation leaps off the screen, hitting us right in our hearts. Chu’s reverence for not only the story (which pulls inspiration for tone, themes and sentiments from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and WIZARD OF OZ), but for the art form itself, shines through. It’s exceptional and rapturous, as all great musicals should aspire to be.
Grade: 4 out of 5
IN THE HEIGHTS opens in theaters and begins streaming on HBOMax on June 11.