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Film Review: ‘In the Heights’ is a Culture-Defining Musical Event

(Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Over the last couple of years, Hollywood has to come to terms with its lack of diversity in just about every form of media. We’ve seen different projects highlighting various cultures absent from the yearly film slate. Movies that speak to the audiences seeing them and the creators making it for them. When Warner Brothers released Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, it hit the zeitgeist and landed with massive critical and financial success. It broke barriers, showing the world that vehicles for people of color on a mainstream level can work. This is why WB and Chu have now given us In the Heights, a movie musical highlighting the beauty and vibrancy within the Latin communities living throughout this country. By doing this, they have made a spectacular achievement.

Based on the Tony-winning smash hit, In the Heights follows a tight-knit community of Latin descent struggling daily to keep what’s theirs. Crossed within the middle of this family like atmosphere is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the local bodega owner. He’s trying to save enough money to leave Washington Heights and open his own slice of heaven back home. Each day, he works with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), he has interactions with his best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), the local hair salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and the girl of his dreams Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Beyond these interactions, he also spends time with “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), the matriarch of the community who takes care of everybody.

As we meet all of these characters, through one dazzling musical number after another, we start to pick up on the movie’s theme. The theme is about the hope within the Latinx culture, and the hard work behind making dreams become a reality. While Usnavi’s paradise is shaping up, we see others struggle to even get their foot in the door. Some can’t even make the slightest impression outside of their community. Like Vanessa, who works at Daniela’s salon, wants to become a fashion designer and move out of the neighborhood. But she doesn’t have someone to co-sign her new lease uptown as well as enough experience within the field. Benny works at Rosario’s, a taxi cab service run by Kevin (Jimmy Smits), and just wants to be taken seriously by his boss.

In the Heights movie: first reactions to the film are in | WhatsOnStage
Warner Bros. Pictures

Then there is Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter, who comes home from her first semester of college at Stanford. She’s seen in the community as a beacon of hope because she was able to leave, thus an enormous weight has been put on her shoulders. She doesn’t know if she can handle the pressure. Moreover, she is on the verge of quitting school altogether because she can see the financial toll it’s taking on her father. Grace’s song ‘Breath’ beautifully shows the struggle of not just her life, but the expectations she carries daily.

This all comes together in the show-stopping number ’96,000,’ where everyone’s dream ties into winning the local lottery. It’s not about the size of the money. It’s about the size of the imagination that each character has when they talk about how they will spend it. A little can go a long way. This is relatable because if Latin people are given similar chances in this world as others, they will thrive. Shoot for the stars and, with some luck, these characters know they will rise above any situation to make it big.

Credit goes to Jon M. Chu, who continues to grow as a director with each new project. He surrounds himself with Latin talent to fully recognize all the little details needed to make this special. It’s as magical as any musical released within this millennium. These specifics by Chu, producer and musical creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes transform this into the movie the Latinx community has been dying to see from Hollywood for some time. When a movie like this feels so lived in, then you know it was created with love and care.

In The Heights - Washington Heights Trailer - YouTube
Warner Bros. Pictures

For the ensemble as a whole, they all shine, but in particular, it’s Ramos whose breathtaking in the lead role. Known for his small part in the Broadway sensation Hamilton, he takes a giant step forward in becoming someone we will look to as the future of what a leading man is in Hollywood. Ramos is charming, versatile, and confident with every decision he makes as Usnavi.

But the highlight of this film comes from Merediz’s performance, especially during her solo ‘Paciencia Y Fe’. We see Claudia’s full life flash before our eyes. It’s a beautiful tribute to older generations who laid the foundation for all those in the Latinx community to thrive. Through their sacrifices, today’s youths are able to build upon what women and men like Claudia built. It’s too early in the year to say what award season might look like, but it will be hard-pressed to find another supporting actress performance as mesmerizing as Merdiz’s here.

Overall, In the Heights is the new blueprint for any musical going forward. With this impeccable work of art, Warner Brothers have not just the film of the summer but a movie that could set a new standard for Latin excellence at the cinema. It can inspire a generation to carry the torch and make more content for the whole world to see. And by doing this, they can see themselves highlighted on the big screen for all to see. It’s a special experience in which all dreams come true.

SCORE: ★★★★

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