“In the Heights” (2021) Review

Written by Victor DeBonis

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

For the first 15 or 30 minutes of “In the Heights,” my eyes felt misty. I couldn’t fully explain why at that moment. Maybe, it was because of the strong sense of optimism and community that made itself well-known from that first song that was played. Perhaps, my reaction came from seeing how tightly knit this greater family was with each other and how it reminded me of the family in my own life, biological and from some of my closest friends, and that sense of connection that can not be expressed through words but felt through experience. Looking back, if I had to give the most complete answer, I’d have to say that it was a mixture of these elements and, maybe, the deep comfort and joy that swept through scene after scene. There are heavier moments in the film to be sure, but it’s hard to think of another recent movie from theaters that made me smile as often as “In the Heights” did. It’s a passionately crafted movie that speaks so well to any dreamer and anybody that knows how important family, legacy, and one’s most hoped pathway is.

Part of what helps tell that story comes from (of course) song and dance numbers, and my chin and toes were tapping to the beat of almost every song. The lyrics have a swift and clever rhythm that comes from hip-hop, and it does what every number should ideally do in terms of moving the story forward but also describe what a character is feeling or what drives him or her in that moment wonderfully in musical form. It’s no secret that I’m extremely selective when it comes to musical films and musicals, in general, but this movie won me over from the very first song and didn’t stop from there, thanks to the lyrics that speak so well for each unique character in addition to the incredible choreography.

Seriously, each dancer uses a specific movement of the hands and practically swoops in their spot through the crowd with amazing skills to show. All that I have to do is glance at how the crowds are introduced in the swimming pool in the musical number, “96,000” and it blows my mind that these massive numbers of dancers were asked to somehow do everything in synchronized fashion and move to these fast-flowing beats and lyrics. It must’ve been a bear trying to take this on, but they pulled it off because the dance choreography is astounding and has an energy to it that’s practically electric and helps make this film that proceeds at about two and a half hours feel much less than that.

Jon M. Chu, who did a great job on directing “Crazy Rich Asians” proves even further here why he’s a great filmmaker. He brings an impressive scope and plenty of bright, vivid colors to create a warmer surrounding for his environments, but he also skillfully uses 360 shots and even longer takes when necessary to let an impactful moment or feel from a crowd or family sink in further with the audience. And, in another way that’s similar to “Crazy, Rich Asians” this movie shows that Chu has a great talent for choosing the right actors that don’t always have gigantic names but possess such likable qualities and honest demeanor that only further creates the genuine feel of community and family that looms over this story. This film establishes Chu even more as a director that I want to continue to see movies from in the future, regardless of what genre they may be.

Performance-wise, Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera, and Leslie Grace are wonderful as their characters and bring plenty of charisma and gentleness to the narratives and personalities of their roles. Ramos, in particular, has charm to spare, but he’s also very quiet and sensitive and has this great talent for rarely having to be forceful in how he speaks when there’s a more dramatic scene. And, all of them have terrific singing voices that naturally lend wonderfully to their musical moments. Jimmy Smits, who I’m always happy to see since I saw him in a personal favorite series of mine “The West Wing” is very likable and stern but not overly so as a father figure in the movie, and Olga Merediz is fantastic as “Abuela” Claudia, believably breathing with all of the warmth and homely demeanor that many come to associate with their beloved grandparent figures in their lives.

What will probably help seal this movie the most upon people is the relatable feel of this movie. “In the Heights” deals with tons of ideas and questions that many will come to identify with on some level. What does it mean to carry on a family’s legacy? What sacrifices are necessary to happen for one to embark further on their passion or lifelong goals? Is it wise to leave from where one started out or continue telling your life story from where you are? What does “home” mean to you, and what does “family” mean to you, and what is the best way for you to follow your own dreams but still honor both of these important items? These are all thoughtful questions to take in, and I was amazed at how this movie didn’t hold people’s hands when tackling these serious issues. The film didn’t spell things out too much, either, and actually addressed these issues in a way that felt genuine and unique to these characters and stayed sincere to what they were going through. Whether you hear these people sing about what they desire or see what they visually go through when there’s no music to dance or rap to, it’s completely believable. Whether you’re an artist trying to find out how to further let your creative light shine or someone trying to have a career-based goal happen or move someplace else to see where your dreams can take you, I believe that many will find something to appreciate on a deeper level and relate to from this film, and that only makes the experience grander.

On a personal level, this movie was moving in the sense that it seemed to speak to me in a few ways in regards to my personal life story and passions. For instance, I heard Ramos’ character, Usnavi, refer to Barrera’s character as similar to a “little sister” to him, and it made me smile and think of a few of the female friends and cousins in my life who I consider to be like sisters to me that I always do my best to look out for. It made me fondly think of how I do and have always done what I can to support these courteous and strong friends of mine on their personal journeys the same way that they support me in a similar way that Ramos and Barrera try to support each other. It also made me think of others who might consider a close friend or relative a “brother” or “sister” to them and how far they’d go to show how much they care about them and do what they can to help them as they try to figure things and continue their life stories.

Additionally, having grown up in Laredo for much of my life, I noticed the food and closeness of the get-togethers from the Hispanic community and was reminded of the frequency with which my relatives would hold special get-togethers or carne asadas during holidays and when we’d meet to embrace the tightly knit community and family that we have with each other. While I am partly Italian, there is another part of me that is partly Hispanic from the other side of the family, and it was great to see this movie that was doing wonders for promoting diversity in a meaningful way.

This movie spoke to me by promoting the wonder of art, whether it’s through one of the wonderfully done mural paintings that is presented in the movie or showing how some characters, who are artists in different manners, express themselves through what they create and can sometimes even influence others through what they create. As someone whose art comes from writing (and drawing when more time is available), this film also struck a chord with me in that sense, and I like to imagine what it says to other artists who may see this film, too.

Furthermore, while I didn’t grow up in New York City and honestly visited there only once when I was 8 years old, I know a few friends who did grow up from there and have continued to share their stories from the past and present. These are friends of mine who have, in a few ways of their own, taught me about how powerful storytelling and connections are and, in a few moments, how truly great storytelling can create even greater connections. And, based on what I remember from the experience and what they’ve shared with me, I can’t help but feel that this movie is a huge love letter to this city through representing those who are artists from here and those who thrive from their personalities and hopes and those who take great pride in their dreams and families and memorable lives that they create here. That makes this film deeply special to me in the sense of what a movie, such as this, means to them and my friends from there and what it accomplishes by representing this unique place in such a magnificent way.

Yet, even beyond that, I have a great amount of respect for this movie in serving as a love letter to a city that, while I may not be a resident or longtime citizen from, I hold the deepest love towards it. I love its culture and its unique sights and areas that define it as such a wondrous place. I love how several of my filmmaking heroes, such as Martin Scorsese, proudly trace their roots from it and how it’s, in many ways, an important place for film, in general. I love how the Big Apple was where some of the best friends that I knew created a good part of their life stories from there at one point in time and still regard it as valuable in their eyes before continuing to craft their stories in the future ahead. And, this movie made me understand even further how a city as grand as this (or wherever someone else may regard as home) can create bonds and lives and stories that are more powerful and resonant than we might sometimes imagine. It goes without saying that this movie makes me even more eager to visit New York City again at some point in the future because of how well it captures the spirit of a vibrant and lively place, such as this.

I will say that this is a musical film that, great as it is for me and others, will probably not be something that everybody will fall in love with. Again, this movie delivers on the dramatic scenes as well, and, for someone who was afraid that this movie might be too light for my taste, I’m happy to say that it never reached that extent and would actually let a hurtful moment or conflict sink in, sometimes without the aid of music. However, there are always people who will want something a little bit even heavier or, maybe, with even more open conflict or an open fight from a musical film, such as, say, “La La Land” or “The Blues Brothers” or, as divisive as the movie is, “Les Miserables.” I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t one of those people who wanted a little bit more heaviness to this film in a few places, but, for me, personally, the dramatic scenes still struck very believably in my eyes, and the movie never reached the point that I felt that it lost my interest. Some people, however, may find issue with this matter that I mentioned, but, again, musical movies often tend to either make their mark with a bunch of people or create a bit of division with how they’re produced.

In any case, “In the Heights” was a great movie that worked like a charm for me. It had likable, identifiable characters and issues, wonderful direction, and a great soundtrack that was made even better with its superb numbers and choreography. And, it speaks well to those who are very tightly knit with who they consider to be their family and to anyone who’s willing to go above and beyond to achieve their deepest dreams and hopes without being corny about it.

I remember seeing the trailer for this movie back in December of 2019, and it was one of the first movies that I was the most eager to see in 2020 before everything turned upside down for a very long time. Having departed from this movie, I’m all the more happy to see this movie playing now in theaters and not just limited to a small screen and having taken its time to be released. It would’ve been a tragedy to show this movie in the previous year via only streaming services because it would’ve probably brought much-needed joy, but the happiness wouldn’t have lasted as long. Now, with some things slowly returning back to something resembling normalcy and theaters slowly starting to make a bit of a comeback, the current atmosphere makes this movie feel all the more vibrant as well as its abundantly bright spirit that it wears on its sleeve.

Take a step towards this movie (preferably, if you’re fully vaccinated, to a big screen in order to get the full experience of how massive and well-made this movie is), and see for yourself what brings many so much joy from this lively experience.

Grade: A

I’m passionate about movies, animation, and writing, in general, and I only want to learn more.