Written by Anna Harrison
Back before Hamilton, when Lin-Manuel Miranda was still a sophomore in college at Wesleyan, he wrote the first draft of what would become In the Heights, which would eventually premiere on Broadway nearly ten years later in 2008. While Heights would later get overshadowed by Hamilton (practically everything gets overshadowed by Hamilton, to be fair), at the time it was a fantastic success, running for almost three years on Broadway. John M. Chu’s adaptation of In the Heights serves as an ebullient reminder of why Lin-Manuel Miranda entered the cultural consciousness in the first place, proof that he was headed towards something great from the very first.
Set in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, In the Heights follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, aka John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, taking over from Miranda, who originated the role on Broadway), a bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic one day. He gives us a rundown of his neighborhood in the energetic opening number, including Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from Broadway), who raised Usnavi after his parents died; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns a taxi company; Benny (Corey Hawkins), a standup employee of Kevin’s; Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s younger cousin; and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose confidence and good looks often make Usnavi put his foot in his mouth around her. Add to this group Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter who is returning home from Stanford for the summer, and you have the big players in the cast—it’s a big group, but Chu manages to (mostly) give each their due.
Set largely over the course of several days in the neighborhood with oppressive heat reminiscent of Do the Right Thing, but with Brooklyn swapped out for Washington Heights, In the Heights juggles all its residents dreams: Usnavi wants to go home, Vanessa wants to go downtown, Kevin wants to ensure his daughter remains the one who “made it out.” There are rising romantic tensions between Usnavi and Vanessa, and flames have reignited between exes Benny and Nina. There’s a blackout, fireworks, and a winning lottery ticket, but it’s really about the beating heart of Washington Heights: its people. The film may be culturally specific, but the joy resonates with everyone.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has become subject of some lightly mockery as of late, mostly from Gen Z, apparently no for no other reason than his honest sincerity (and maybe a certain unfortunate selfie pose)—because he still exhibits the type of hope that, for one reason or anything, seems to have gradually whittled over the years since the original In the Heights—and, later, Hamilton—came out. But something like In the Heights reminds us that no matter how easy it has become to slide into cynicism, there is still something to be said for buoyant optimism and unbridled joy.
Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its flaws: it does buckle at various points under the weight of all its characters, even having cut out certain plots and songs (sometimes to its detriment: cutting Nina and Benny’s duet “Sunrise” and bypassing certain beats for those two makes their romance less effective than it is on stage—if they are dynamite on Broadway, here they are only some powerful sparklers), and there is a rather ham-fisted plot about DACA that has been clumsily shoehorned in—not that we should keep politics and movies separate (that has always been both silly and impossible), but I do wish these moments had been added with a little more grace.
But after more than a year of being stuck at home and isolated even within our communities, In the Heights is a breath of fresh air: its cast, in particular Anthony Ramos, is so charming that it’s impossible not to smile; the songs are catchy, the dancing electric, the colors beautiful. And after all the anger and uncertainty we’ve experienced, it feels damn good to go back into a movie theater and laugh, and cry, simply enjoy something with other people.
In the Heights Trailer
In the Heights is currently available to stream on HBO Max and view in theaters.
You can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and her website.