‘In The Heights’ Is a Socially Undistanced, Summer Crowd Pleaser
Last March, in the Heights aroused being the last film I saw during a theater before COVID-19 pack up ny . I had just received a press screening once I learned that our physical office was closing which everyone would work from home until further notice. This made watching the movie a bittersweet experience. The vision of community, the sweaty intimacy of crowded street corners and apartments and clubs, the revolving door of neighbors and friends drifting through each other’s days like surrogate family, to not mention an everlasting , frustrated love for the tousled grandeur of the town itself — of these things, even the very idea of them, felt like they were quickly receding into the past, with little insight into once they might, if ever, return.
Of course, even without an epidemic , in the Heights (now call at theaters and on HBO Max, after a year of delays), directed by Jon M. Chu from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical billet doux to the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, was already suffused with a mild melancholy — not exactly nostalgia, but a way of things passing. There’s a fairy-tale retrospection built into the film’s framing device, as our hero, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), sits at an idyllic beachside bar lecture a gaggle of youngsters about “a faraway land called Nueva York” and a “barrio called Washington Heights.” (“Say it, so it doesn’t disappear,” he implores them.) His story centers on what would are his last days in ny , as he prepares to go away behind the bodega he has run most of his life and return to the Dominican Republic to revive his late father’s beloved bar. The neighborhood is changing, gentrification is encroaching, and Usnavi is uninterested in slaving away just to form ends meet. Once upon a time, moving to America meant a far better life; now, it looks like you want to leave to enhance your lot.
The bar he hopes to reopen is named “El Sueñito” — “Little Dream” — and therefore the film’s four protagonists all have their distinct little dreams, each revealing a special relationship to the present community. Usnavi wants to travel back to his family’s homeland, where he believes he spent the simplest days of his life as a child; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the aspiring designer Usnavi not-so-secretly longs for, intends to maneuver downtown to open her own fashion store within the West Village; Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) has just returned from a tumultuous first year at Stanford determined to not return but also mortified of disappointing all the family and neighbors who had such high hopes for her; Usnavi’s ally Benny (Corey Hawkins), who has feelings for Nina Rosario, wants to continue diligently working for the car service owned by her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), a situation complicated by the very fact that Kevin is thinking of selling the business to assist buy his daughter’s tuition.
This quartet of young lovers drives the story, but they’re just a part of the expansive tapestry on display. The film’s numbers, drawn from a good range of musical styles, rarely follow one emotional through line, instead presenting entire symphonies of character, gesture, and subplot. The movie was shot on location in Washington Heights, lending it an immediacy that creates for a vibrant, occasionally dissonant combination with the outsized aesthetic of a studio musical. Chu simultaneously blends the casual, the lived-in and intimate a standard musical’s broad gestures and precise rhythms and dream logic, because the actors flip easily between the naturalistic and therefore the theatrical.
That idea is never new, but it doesn’t always work this well. The film has several show-stoppers, with the simplest one coming right within the middle, as news that Usnavi’s bodega sold a winning lottery ticket which will disburse $96,000 percolates through the gang at an enormous public pool. Everybody sings, in their own style and cadence, about what they might do with such a sum. Throwaway dance moves, bits of slapstick, glimpses of gritty sincerity are cut against grand, highly coordinated movements. It’s like Busby Berkeley by way of Vittorio De Sica . The musical miniatures within the grander scheme make the individual singers’ hopes and fears palpable, but when the camera pulls out and that we see the entire pool get up for the chorus, the effect is overwhelming, as if the facility of thousand dreams has somehow transformed reality itself.
This sort of informal awkwardness clashing against exacting choreography is that the film’s sweet spot. (It’s also where Chu has always thrived, as his lovely entries within the intensify series demonstrated years ago.) It works during the film’s softer moments, too. Late within the movie, when two of our young lovers dance gently and vertically along the side of an apartment house , the instant startles not for technical reasons — it’s the only of effects — but because the dancers are clearly experiencing the wonder of what they’re doing, as if surprised that their emotions have allowed them to defy the laws of gravity. They’re crazy , and they’re a touch freaked out by how it’s literally upended their world. Push too far in either direction — make the dancers too confident, or make them too hesitant — and therefore the scene would lose its charm. Their uncertainty heightens their grace, which successively heightens their humanity. an equivalent might be said for in the Heights itself, which achieves a ramshackle beauty all its own.
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