Chu does an exceptional job teasing out the alternate versions of In the Heights, but the one we get is pretty good, too. The film starts in a period of commercial transition for the neighborhood. A beauty parlor run by the film’s Greek chorus of Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) is relocating. Kevin Rosario’s (Jimmy Smits) cab company is being sniffed around by investors. Usnavi has dreams of moving back to the Dominican Republic, where his family’s previously owned beachside shop has gone back up for sale. Amidst these business moves are romantic ones between the tongue-tied and nervous Usnavi and the beautiful and confident Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who has her own dreams of moving into the city center and developing her own fashion line. Best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) runs dispatch for Kevin’s (Jimmy Smits) cab company, a man whose business success Benny aspires to and plans to replicate, and, if he’s lucky, maybe marry into through Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) who’s home from Stanford after a rough first year. The film attempts to add tension by framing each day that goes by as one day closer to a blackout, but this fails once the blackout actually happens and nothing comes of it. A loss of electricity doesn’t set up dramatic conflicts that force the characters to make decisions about their future, nor does it thwart their existing states and push towards new ones. Chu and writer Quiara Allegria Hudes (who also cowrote the musical) feel the need to goose the events of the film into a more substantial place, not realizing that the various turning points the characters find themselves approaching are enough.
Clumsy plotting aside, In the Heights’s main draw is the choreography and Miranda’s particular lyricism, all set to infectious Latin beats. Ramos played a significant role in Hamilton and is well-accustomed to the rap inflections and tongue-twisters that characterize Miranda’s work, and Hawkins is just as adept. The women of the cast, particularly Grace and Barerra, are given more classical ballads to sing, and while both are compelling performers, the distinction in style between the men and women of the cast is notable. Many musicals contain the straightforward style while only a handful get to do what Ramos and Hawkins are given. A musical without earworms is something of a failure, and based on what I was humming for weeks after seeing it, In the Heights is no failure.
On the dancing front, the requisite city block performances and club scenes are present and overwhelming with all the detail and precision that each extra is bringing to their work. A sequence at a pool makes great use of water misting through the air, though it also includes a comically bad scene of CGI backdrop in what must have been a last-minute make-up shot. In quieter moments, Benny and Nina have a gravity-defying, swooning duet at sunset, and Olga Merediz, reprising her role from the Broadway musical as a neighborhood matriarch, nails the emotional climax of the film during a sequence lit by the candlelight of those immigrants who came to New York before her. The mix of crowded boisterousness with intimate reflection is well-calibrated to give the viewer alternating boosts of energy and pathos, and it makes the film’s 143 minutes move quickly.
A movie about an immigrant population can’t be made in the Trump era and not address Dreamers, a development that’s frankly on-the-nose when so much of the film itself is about lower-case dreamers. Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) discovers over the course of the film that he was brought to the country illegally, a detail that wasn’t present in the musical. This is integrated relatively well into the adaptation, though its addition is apparent in how the issue disappears as the film ends and the relationships that In the Heights is mainly invested in take center stage.
The film’s more relevant value as a political work doesn’t need contemporary embellishing, concerned as it is with what assimilation means or how the next generation moves forward once the previous one has established itself. Usnavi embodies the homesickness that draws immigrants back to their country of origin, but contained within that homesickness is a predictability that is rejected by whatever the American Dream is. Go back home and know what your life will be like til its end. Stay here, and who knows what is possible. This also applies to Nina, wracked with guilt over her father’s considerable efforts to pay for college. The dissolution of his business over tuition costs hurts on the surface, but what else was he working hard for if not to provide his daughter with the best possible opportunity. Washington Heights is shown to be full of in-progress dreams, where each business and endeavor might be the thing or it might be the thing that gets a person to the next thing. The striving is what everyone has in common, as embodied by a song where the neighborhood all envisions how they would improve their lives with a five-figure lottery payout. It’s not life-changing money, but it would push them forward quickly as opposed to the tiny steps the characters are taking every day.
All of this is embodied by Miranda himself playing a small role as the local sno-cone, or piragua, seller. Does he want to hand his cart off to his children, if they exist, or would he want them to earn their livings in air-conditioned environs? Did Usnavi’s parents do him a favor by leaving him their bodega and its reliable source of income, or did they leave him with a burden that anchors him to one place? In the Heights doesn’t put its finger on the scale, for the better. It constructs a place worth staying in but many of the characters are leaving for greener pastures, which the 99% Latin-descended cast of characters did themselves somewhere in their recent family history. That all this thought-provoking exploration of immigrant experiences and desires is contained within a film that’s a great deal of fun to experience is a victory for Chu and his cast of rising stars. B