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In the Heights

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.

Adapted from the acclaimed Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical, by writer Quiara Alegria Hudes (who also wrote the musical stage play book) “In the Heights” is not just a love letter/song to Latin Caribbean culture, but also a look at a place where these cultures thrive as one; a place called Washington Heights in New York City.  

Told as a “tall tale” of sorts to a group of children, by a Dominican man named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos). He tells the story of his dream as a young man to move back to the Dominican Republic after living in Washington Heights since childhood. The musical also follows a handful of other characters. The two other prominent storylines feature Nina (Leslie Grace) a Puerto Rican student who recently dropped out of college and has come back home to the Heights to break the news to her father (Jimmy Smits) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) a young Latina with dreams of parleying her fashion design aspirations into a one-way trip out of Washington Heights.

These storylines spotlight some of the topical political issues and everyday situations many Latino/Latino immigrants living in the U.S. find themselves going through today. And these storylines are only amplified by a plethora of stand-out performances from the entire cast, but specifically Ramos, Smits and Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela Claudia, an old Cuban woman with no children of her own, so instead she watches over the young people in this neighborhood. Merediz steals the show multiple times, injecting much needed life into this film’s lackluster initial hour. Her performance reaches its apex with her singing of “Paciencia Y Fe”, which is one of the most beautiful musical sequences put to film.  

Director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets, Crazy Rich Asians) is seemingly a perfect match for this production. The choreography for most of the song and dance numbers are handled with tremendous care for the culture and implemented with a high caliber of cinematic flair.   

That said, with all of the love I have for this movie, I must say that it took me over an hour to get into it. OVER AN HOUR! This is a film of two halves. During the first hour plus, “In the Heights” is shockingly flat, there are pacing problems, a lack of stakes and songs which are tragically forgettable. Although, as I said prior, while the bones of the three main stories are a nice start, I found myself bored with Chu’s delivery. This is why it was so shocking when around the seventy-minute mark, “In the Heights” sees Chu wake up and flex on us all. Beginning with the blackout/” Paciencia Y Fe” sequence, Chu doesn’t look back, giving us musical perfection for the following hour. Why it took so long to get to that point is a mystery. But once it does, rising tides lift all boats, as the acting, the storylines, the dance sequences, even the songs all reach a level which rivals anything out of “West Side Story”.   

Final Thought: “In the Heights” is a story of acceptance, homecomings and suenitos, told in the hip hop cadence Miranda is known for. This is a love letter that eventually became something which exceeded my high expectations…just maybe fast forward a bit if you can.

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