Review: ‘In the Heights’ is the Joyous Celebration We Deserve Right Now

In the Heights
Anthony Ramos as Usnavi and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa in ‘In the Heights’ (Photo Credit: Macall Polay © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc)

In the Heights is the summer movie we all need, especially at this time when we’re coming off such a rotten year. The film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning 2008 Broadway musical is a joyous, life-affirming celebration. The uplifting musical’s a cinematic treat for the eyes, ears, and soul.

Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos leads the stellar cast playing Usnavi, the owner of a small corner store who loves his neighborhood but dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. Usnavi’s our reliable narrator throughout the production, providing key details on the many extraordinary characters in his orbit. It’s through Usnavi’s narration that we learn small family businesses are losing their hold on Washington Heights as the neighborhood’s gentrified.

Usnavi’s got a huge crush on the fiery Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who has her own dreams of leaving Washington Heights and becoming a fashion designer. His best friend, Benny (Corey Hawkins), has a head for business and a heart that belongs to the smartest girl in the neighborhood, Nina (Leslie Grace). Nina’s just returned from a semester at Stanford, uncertain as to what her future holds. She’s discovered college isn’t what she expected and doesn’t feel as though she fits in. Stanford isn’t home; she can’t relax and breathe there.

Nina’s dad (Jimmy Smits) runs the local taxi dispatch and struggles to pay her college tuition, yet he’s determined his straight-A daughter will have a better life than he’s had – no matter what it takes to make it so. Giving up on a college education would be a huge disappointment to her dad as well as her friends in the neighborhood who believe she’s meant for bigger things. She’s the girl who used her intelligence and perseverance to escape. Quitting college would be akin to admitting defeat.

Usnavi’s teenage cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), is both his right-hand man and comic sidekick. Sonny works at Usnavi’s convenience store and fancies himself a ladies man. He’s got the moves but needs a few more years under his belt to really slide into a groove.

Watching over everyone is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), Washington Heights’ beloved matriarch.

Everyone’s accepted and encouraged to dream big in the Heights. The neighborhood’s filled with passionate people determined to make their mark in the world, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap and salsa soundtrack tells their unique stories via vibrant, energetic numbers.

Director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2 and 3, Crazy Rich Asians) understands how to fill a frame during the larger dance numbers and is equally adept at allowing the quieter, intensely personal songs to flow without unnecessarily contrived setups. Each musical number feels organic and beautiful, with the more anthemic numbers delivered as show-stopping spectacles. “96,000” gets the Busby Berkeley treatment while the emotionally moving “When The Sun Goes Down” with Nina and Benny features stunning choreography and cinematography using a changing perspective on the side of a building.

The charismatic Ramos leads an incredible cast in this film adaptation of the critically acclaimed musical. Every role is perfectly cast and every number hits all the right emotional notes. Chu’s assembled a cornucopia of talented supporting players including Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, and Daphne Rubin-Vega who shine as part of the amazing ensemble. Miranda puts in a couple of appearances as Piragua Guy, a shaved ice salesman who knows the ins and outs of the neighborhood. There’s even room for scene-stealing cameos by Marc Anthony and Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson in this jubilant musical that focuses on a tight-knit culturally diverse neighborhood.

Warner Bros. Pictures’ In the Heights is, thankfully, no Cats. Writer of the original musical’s book and the film’s screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes has created a Washington Heights that’s a beautiful microcosm of diversity filled with authentic characters living relatable lives. And director Chu and company have crafted a film that’s a pure joy to watch. In the Heights is a blast and, best of all, leaves you feeling optimistic.


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for suggestive references and some language

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

Release Date: June 10, 2021 (moved up from June 11th)