There’s a refrain Usnavi, the protagonist and narrator of In the Heights, repeats throughout the film whenever he name-checks his Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights: “Say it, so it doesn’t disappear.” It’s a sad line repeated throughout a film so jubilant that it’s easy to miss the despair lurking on the edges. Understanding that fear means accepting that a neighborhood isn’t just buildings and blocks — it’s the people who live there, and something is always waiting to push them out. That’s the trouble with living in New York City. Everyone wants to call it their own — often at the expense of the people who have already settled into a given neighborhood.
In the Heights is mostly famous for being the musical that helped catapult Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda into the public consciousness. The New York City-born son of a Puerto Rican politician and doctor, Miranda has a large-looming Broadway reputation, due to his ability to craft incredibly popular musicals that heavily feature both his love of hip-hop and the Nuyorican culture of his youth in a manner palatable to the notoriously white New York theater scene. The appeal of the musical is in the way that it’s not necessarily about any one person — Miranda wrote the music and lyrics, while the book was written by Puerto Rican playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes. It’s about a whole block: its stories and sounds, its hopes and dreams.
The 2021 film version, helmed by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu, is a triumphant adaptation, confidently reworking the stage show into a gorgeous, vibrant film that captures both the bigness of musical theater and the intimacy that comes with telling a story about a specific culture. In its joyous excess, In the Heights makes a case for adapting Broadway musicals into Hollywood cinema. The musical numbers are freed from the boundaries of the stage, and they don’t waste that freedom. The dance routines feel like gorgeous action-movie set-pieces, thanks to Alice Brooks’ cinematography. And the film cast is a constellation of Latinx legends and up-and-comers alike, from Daphne Rubin-Vega to Leslie Grace and Jimmy Smits. Every summer should have a movie like this one.
Set mostly across three hot summer days leading up to a blackout, In the Heights follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young bodega owner running the business his parents left behind when they died. The son of Dominican immigrants, Usnavi wants to return to the country his family is from, to close up the bodega and revive his father’s old bar by the beach. But Washington Heights is the only place he’s ever really known. It’s where his friends and neighbors all live, including, most importantly, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the girl he’s crushed on for most of his life. Across three days, the audience gets a whirlwind tour of Usnavi’s block and the key players who live there — and more importantly, we learn about their sueñitos.
In the Heights uses sueñito — Spanish for “little dream” — as a shorthand for the immigrant experience, a cutesy way of introducing a general audience to the Latin American diaspora and the immense variety within it. The operative word is “little” — the characters of In the Heights don’t want much. Usnavi’s friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants to prove himself as a taxi dispatcher. Benny’s boss Kevin (Smits) wants his daughter to be a success, as the first family member to go to college — and Stanford, no less. Daniela (Rubin-Vega) is closing her salon and moving it to the Bronx, and hoping it’s a success there. The neighborhood piragüero (Miranda himself, in a small role that pops up throughout the movie) wants to sell shaved ice free from the tyranny of the neighborhood Mister Softee ice cream truck. They’re just sueñitos, you know? They don’t amount to much, but even so, they’re so far away from being realized.
Much of the conflict in In the Heights comes from that distance: the knowledge that what people want shouldn’t be so hard to achieve, and yet it is. It’s hard because someone’s always eager to carve the block up, as gentrification raises prices and rents, pressuring the local businesses to fold and sell to wealthy developers. It’s hard because Nina (Leslie James), the Stanford student and pride of the neighborhood, feels like a fraud at an elite university that treats her differently because of her racial background and lack of economic privilege. It’s hard because this is an immigrant community in a country hostile to immigrants, with a system that makes becoming a citizen feel more difficult than winning the lottery.
This is the struggle, the common thread tying together a community of people in a city that’s eager to forget them. In the Heights isn’t merely a Latin American story; it’s a New York City story — a place where Latinx people make up 29% of the population and form the largest nonwhite ethnic group. That’s a lot of people and a lot of stories, all mostly ignored in popular culture in favor of a romantic vision of NYC where college graduates go to reinvent themselves. The imaginary version of the city where they thrive is one built to cater solely to wealth, one that expands erratically outward like a capitalist cancer.
But In the Heights isn’t a downer — it’s a work of palpable joy, filled with the exuberant movement of people who know these things and dance anyway. As someone descended from Puerto Rican and Guatemalan immigrants who settled in New York, I found the film moving, though it’s also discomfiting to know the context it’s going to be received in: as a big Hollywood musical that’s not just for Latinx people, but for fans of Broadway, Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cult of personality, and musical theater in general. They’re going to flock to this film like it’s a hot new brunch spot in Crown Heights, where people rave about the “authenticity.”
This is a natural side effect of commodifying a culture for something as mainstream as a Hollywood movie with blockbuster aspirations. It’s like seeing your personal life experience distilled into a pop song. You’re grateful that it’s a banger, and you might even like it, but it’s never going to feel right when people who aren’t like you sing the chorus at you.
But In the Heights does its best to speak to its people without conceding too much to an imagined mainstream/majority audience. The lyrics and dialogue are full of Spanglish, only subtitled when absolutely necessary. Latinx heroes like Celia Cruz are name-checked, but not explained. And pots full of carne guisada y pasteles get nice close-up shots, but zero exposition.
This is how In the Heights won me over. Because in spite of its flaws — like lopsided twin romantic subplots where the lead characters are overshadowed by their best friends, or cloying lyrics that play on both the literal and figurative meanings of “powerless” — it’s ultimately a work of affection for both its subject and its medium. It’s a celebration of the never-ending struggle that ties immigrant communities together, even for people who come from different islands with different dances and different slang. It conveys the feeling of living here while always thinking about the warmth of the sun Over There. And yes, because Chu visibly loves musicals, and displays his complete delight with light and color, dance and sound. Everyone has their own version of New York City. In the Heights is about the one that means the most to me. Say it, so it doesn’t disappear.
In the Heights premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on June 11.