Enter “In the Heights,” Jon M. Chu’s exuberant adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Broadway musical about one weekend in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. It’s a lovely visual spectacle — and a wonderful advertising campaign for city living.
All the characters in the film are wrestling with similar versions of the same dilemma: to stick it out in their gentrifying neighborhood, or to leave, whether in recognition of changing economic conditions or in pursuit of new dreams.
Usnavi (portrayed by the marvelous Anthony Ramos) runs his late parents’ bodega and plans to return the Dominican Republic to revive his father’s old bar. He pines after aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who is eager to move downtown. Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) works for the local car service and imagines a career in business. Benny also carries a torch for Nina (Leslie Grace), who struggles with the gap between her neighborhood’s pride in her academic achievements and the racism she experiences at Stanford University.
And while they’re mulling those decisions, “In the Heights” achieves much of its power as a cinematic experience simply by making city living look terrific.
An extended sequence set at a public pool and borrowing from Esther Williams-style aquamusicals is a gorgeous rejoinder to the bland horror of the refrigerated trucks used to store New York City’s covid-19 dead as morgues overflowed. In one gentle number, Nina imagines her younger self dancing down the streets, moving from one supportive pair of neighborly arms to the next as a whole community invested itself in her ambition. Rising crime in cities such as New York is real and consequential, but “In the Heights” emphasizes that dense urban areas foster trust as well as fear.
More specifically, “In the Heights” is a testament to the cross-cultural collaboration and innovation that density makes possible.
As Reason’s Peter Suderman notes, the movie is full of small-time entrepreneurs, like car service owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) and a piragua vendor (played by Miranda) who competes intensely with the operator of the neighborhood Mister Softee truck. A local lawyer has the reach and expertise to navigate both the Dominican business world and the U.S. immigration system, while Usnavi’s Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) serves as a kind of one-woman social services agency.
When a blackout strikes in the middle of a heat wave, Benny manages to keep dispatching cars to people who urgently need transportation, including a woman in labor; his ingenuity mirrors the energy that powered the mutual aid networks that sprung up in response to the pandemic’s hardships. And as the blackout lingers on, the neighborhood’s residents draw on their varying cultural traditions to amuse and comfort one another.
The candy-colored palette of “In the Heights” and its vivid dance sequences don’t obscure the ways in which city living and gentrification can be cruel, too.
From the opening number, we learn that legacy businesses are selling storefronts or moving to the Bronx in search of cheaper rents. In one painful scene, a character takes a set of precious, hand-embroidered napkins to the new dry cleaners on the block, only to retreat, humiliated, when she’s quoted an outrageous price. In another, Vanessa has her apartment application rejected because she doesn’t have wealthy parents to co-sign a lease for her.
But ultimately, “In the Heights” argues in favor of staying and finding one’s place in the cycle of urban creative destruction. Washington Heights, after all, was many things before it became a Latino stronghold: indigenous land, Revolutionary War battleground, site of literal castles and refuge for German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.
Vanessa, who once believed she could only pursue fashion design downtown, discovers that her ultimate inspiration is the graffiti rags and cast-off fabric she finds in Washington Heights’ streets and alleys. Usnavi decides to stay and transform his family’s bodega into a new kind of community hub, one that both sells essentials and highlights products produced there. Nina comes to understand that the values she learned in Washington Heights can inspire her through even her most difficult moments at Stanford.
Building these kinds of communities takes work, and the pandemic year has exacted a crushing toll on many urban neighborhoods. But “In the Heights” argues that this version of city life is worth fighting for — and learning from. With dedication, after a very dark chapter, it can be “Lights up on Washington Heights” and other American cities once again.