At its core, In the Heights is a story about family and the love shared within, regardless if they share the same blood. A bodega owner, a cab director, a valedictorian, a salon worker and a retired maid have nothing in common on the surface, but they all share and cultivate the same community, bonds and culture. Together they push each other further over the boundaries set for them by society; that is the story being told here.
Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, a young Dominican man struggling to find his true home. Ramos knocks it out of the park with this role, nailing the choreography, vocals and emotional depth in his performance to solidify his as one of the best performances so far this year. Melissa Barrera plays Vanessa, an artist and aspiring fashion designer looking for a way out of the neighborhood; she also happens to be Usnavi’s love interest.
She’s great in this role, but doesn’t necessarily stand out from the rest of the incredible cast. Corey Hawkins plays Benny, a man looking to rekindle his relationship with Nina (Leslie Grace), his boss’ daughter. Nina is held up as the example of how to rise above the neighborhood, as she’s a student at Stanford, but she’s also terrified of letting her community down.
This entire cast, from top to bottom, is extremely strong. All of the characters are memorable, regardless of their overall importance to the plot. By the end of the film, you really feel like part of this community. The supporting cast is a major reason for this, especially Jimmy Smits and Olga Merediz, who play a floundering businessman and the grandmother of the neighborhood respectively.
Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) directs this film with an energy I haven’t seen since La La Land in 2016. The camera moves constantly, especially during the musical sequences. Every shot is beautiful, full of color and brimming with life. There are so many long takes, or at least shots made to look like them; it’s truly impressive. A lot of this can also be attributed to cinematographer Alice Brooks, who could be competing for an Oscar come next award season. This film is a technical marvel, from top-notch editing to the choreography.
I’d be remiss to not mention the songs and music of this film, all written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. They’re all fantastic, a nice mix between the classic style of musicals and the hip-hop and Latin influences and culture of New York City and the Washington Heights neighborhood in particular.
I can’t recommend seeing this film any more, preferably in theaters, if possible. The HBO Max release just doesn't have the same energy or quality, especially when it comes to the sound and popping colors. My only real complaint is that the runtime is a little long at almost two and a half hours. There are a few scenes and a particular song that could be cut with no impact on the plot which would trim that excess down a bit. Outside of that, In the Heights is a terrific film and a great reason to return to the theater.