Movie ReviewsMusic and Musicals

In the Heights review

In the Heights is an incredible, inspirational and unforgettable experience. The rest of the 2021 lineup has now officially been put on notice that this is the new mark of excellence to reach for the next six months.

This is the kind of film that’s impossible to take everything in with the first viewing and demands at minimum a repeat viewing (or two).

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, Hamilton) is a Washington Heights bodega owner with plans of taking his young cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) and Abuela (Olga Merediz) to the Dominican Republic. Upon returning to the DR, Usnavi plans to restore his father’s old shop, which was destroyed in a hurricane.

Leaving has its own drawbacks as it means Usnavi won’t be able to actually make good on his feelings for his longtime crush, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Vanessa works at a salon, but she also has loftier dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Usnavi’s best friend, Benny (Corey Hawkins, 6 Underground), is eagerly awaiting the return of his old girlfriend, Nina (Leslie Grace).

in the heights review -vanessa, carla, nina, daniela, cuca

Nina is back from her first semester at Stanford and carrying the brunt of expectations from the neighborhood as someone destined for greatness.

It doesn’t help that her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits, 24: Legacy), shares those same lofty expectations and doesn’t care what he has to sacrifice including a share of his business to see her soar. And the trio of salon employees led by Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) keep the neighborhood looking good and the gossip flowing.

Director Jon M. Chu infuses so much imagination and creativity to the film that it feels very far removed from its Broadway roots. Chu adds animated elements, daydream sequences with the environment transforming before the characters and a breathtaking number along a building.

in the heights review - daniela, carla, vanessa, abuela, sonny, cuca and kevin

Quiara Alegría Hudes, the author of the musical’s book, also crafted the film’s screenplay. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) starred and handled the musical numbers.

Hudes adds so many layers to the script from a celebration of Latinx culture (sorry, some of the dialogue won’t have English subtitles), gentrification, the pressure of future generations to surpass their forefathers, deep seated casual racism and the challenge facing Dreamers.


Even with a two and a half hour run time, that could have been a lot of topics to explore and give enough weight to warrant their inclusion. Hudes does so in a way that no subject matter feels slighted, which is even more impressive as she has to weave these subplots into the film’s extensive musical numbers.

The musical numbers are sensational. This doesn’t have to be a Hamilton vs. In the Heights debate, but Heights benefits from a larger landscape than a stage. Hamilton clearly made the most of its setting while there no such restraints to Heights. Musical numbers take place in the bodega, the streets of Washington Heights, a club and one of the film’s signature scenes — a massive community swimming pool.

in the heights review - vanessa in the pool

I loved the celebration of so many aspects of life. Elder cast members aren’t relegated to obligatory sage, old folk roles. They’re equally showcased in musical numbers as vibrant members of the community. There’s no pat on the back “not bad for the old folks” mentality.

Ramos carries himself like a star and always comes off as equal to whatever is needed in any scene. From the normal braggadocios joking around with his friends, to a dramatic storyteller sharing his exploits to young children or nervously trying to keep his cool around Vanessa, Ramos gives Usnavi a fully developed persona.

in the heights review - vanessa and usnavi in the club

The rest of the cast is equally stellar. Barrera makes Vanessa more than just a love interest with an agenda of her own. Grace and Hawkins have strong chemistry, Smits is endearing as the proud father and Merediz as the warm, comforting presence.

When the film reaches its final act, the struggles and challenges of the characters feel well-earned without feeling like forced drama. You’re rooting for the best possible resolutions for the characters even if that’s not how the “real world” operates.

in the heights review - nina and benny

There’s an aspirational nature to the premise and it’s encouraging to see characters chasing after their dreams no matter how big or small.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures