For centuries, New York City has welcomed immigrants from every nation, matching each wave of newcomers with an enclave of their own. True, there’s a lot to who lives where and why, but at least there’s a place, no matter how small, for everyone and a community to support them.
That community can also be a burden. Nina (Leslie Grace) knows how that feels: She’s the one everyone hopes will get out of Washington Heights. If any of us can, they say, it’s Nina who will. But smarts won’t get you far in a world still focused on color, and though Nina’s earned her way to Stanford, the wealthy donors of Palo Alto are quick to remind her it doesn’t mean she belongs. Not to mention, the tuition is outrageous.
Nina’s dad, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), came to this country with nothing and worked night and day to make sure his little girl had opportunities he never did. And she’ll have it, even if it costs him everything — including Benny (Corey Hawkins), Kevin’s star employee, the voice of the neighborhood and Nina’s ex-boyfriend patiently waiting out their distance-imposed hiatus.
Nina, Kevin and Benny’s stories are but three of the chorus making up In the Heights, director Jon M. Chu’s kaleidoscopic adaptation of the 2008 Tony Award-winning musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. Hudes wrote the screenplay for the movie, and Miranda shows up as the Piragua Guy. He’s not very convincing. Some performers are chameleons; others can’t escape their most famous role. Miranda belongs in the latter.
Back to the story: Nina doesn’t want out, but Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) does. She wants to be a fashion designer downtown, but no one thinks she’s going to make it — no one, except Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), that is. They’re in love and don’t know it (sort of), but he dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic (kind of). If only they had an extra $96,000 lying around. Someone in Washington Heights does, in the form of an unclaimed lotto ticket. Whoever holds it holds the ticket to their dreams.
There’s only one person who doesn’t need it, and that’s Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a hardworking cleaning lady who couldn’t have children of her own, so she adopted the neighborhood. She scrubbed her way from Cuba to New York, and she’s lived long enough to see that things are looking up for her people. She’s also lived long enough to see that gentrification is coming in the form of an organic dry cleaner that charges $9 a shirt.
In the Heights is a full-blown musical about visibility, dreamers and trying to keep a vibrant Latinx neighborhood from gentrification — but without vilifying the organic dry cleaners. It’s a kind movie, which is nice, but it also feels more engineered than honest.
The highlights are the musical numbers, shot by Alice Brooks, edited by Myron Kerstein and choreographed by Christopher Scott. There are about 17 or so, but in a 143-minute-long movie, that’s a lot of downtime for cliché dialogue, a phony framing device and a cast of supporting players so arch they hew toward caricature. It’s frustrating and a little disappointing, even if it does look unbelievably attractive on a big screen.