Movie review: In the Heights

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Maintaining hope in the face of adversity, or simply a lack of substantial and real change, is taxing for anyone.

Even more so, when you have placed everything on the line when it comes to fulfilling your dream and all you see for your effort of incremental advancement that seems to make no overall difference to your life and which is going nowhere near making your hoped-for grand vision of the future come to fruition.

In the Jon M. Chu directed cinematic rendition of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights, an ode to the many lows, the transcendent highs and the often spirit-sapping in-betweens of the immigrant experience, we bear witness to hope coming hard against the brutal reality of a world in which the deck is very much set against the people doing the dreaming.

Unafraid to tackle some necessary, weighty issues, the film, which took a decade or so to get made largely, says Miranda in Variety because movie studios weren’t able to update their cultural touchpoints to match In the Heights‘ depiction of the modern immigrant story, makes it clear why hope, potent though it might be, can take a beating at the grinding hand of reality.

Through a number of key characters, all of whom hold to the alluring power of sueñitos or “little dreams” with the urgency of someone holding to a life buoy in the open ocean, we come to understand how much it matters that these dreams are realised and yet how tough it is to make that happen when the odds are well and truly stacked against you.

Take Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer and current beauty salon employee in the Washington Heights barrio in which In the Heights is set, who dreams of signing a lease on a property downtown and getting a name made for herself.

She has the drive and the talent, that is not even remotely in dispute, but her attempts to push her dream further than fertile pipe dreams keep coming to nothing, at least in the first act of this two-act piece of rich, artistically-wrought but brilliantly accessible musical storytelling.

As Vanessa works hard to make her dream come true, another resident of Washington Heights is close to admitting defeat.

Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), daughter of local tax service entrepreneur and devoted dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits), is newly returned from her freshman year at Stanford University, worn out not so much by her study as the prevalent racism that sees her, among things, mistaken for wait staff at a college function.

She wants to make something of herself but also feels as if she’s being disloyal in some way to her Latino roots, that people are judging her for being so audacious as thinking she can move beyond Washington Heights; it’s irrational, she suspects, but it weighs heavily on her, and not even her boyfriend in the offing Benny (Corey Hawkins) nor her dad can convince her otherwise, at least not until a turning point event opens her eyes to what might be possible if she’s suitably qualified.

The beating heart and soul of the narrative is Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), orphaned son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and cousin to DREAMer Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) who works for him in the bodega left to him by his parents who have now died, leaving him in the care of mother of the whole barrio “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz) who holds fast to the idea of Paciencia y fe or “patience and faith”.

It is as much a prayer as a declaration, a reassuring reminder to self that whatever the obstacles in your way, whatever losses you might experience, that there is a sustaining power in holding fast to your dream and having the quiet tenacity to hang on until it is fulfilled.

“Abuela” Claudia, who didn’t have children of her own but has become a mothering figure to those without one such as Usnavi and Nina, among others, is a strong source of love and inspiration for Usnavi who dreams of escaping Washington Heights and going back to the Dominican Republic to take over his father’s one-time beachside bar, which is now a ramshackle ruin, very much in need of some dreaming of its own.

Powered by this dream Usnavi wakes up at 5.30 a.m. every morning before working hard in the bodega, all for the fulfilment of a dream that may never come to pass but which he can never yield on because to do such a thing is a sacrilege that neither he nor any of the other aspirants in the barrio, which is everyone as someone knowingly and affectionately jokes at one point, could ever countenance.

This all-consuming story of hope against the odds, which in true musicals style, suffers more backwards steps than forward one through much of the first part of In the Heights’ running time, finds expression again and again in songs that resonate the expansive optimism of the driving need to succeed and the crushing sense that all this drive and enthusiasm could come to nothing.

One example of the impelling power of hope is found in the song “96,000” in which Usnavi discovers that someone in the barrio has won the kind of money that can change lives in the poor, struggling neighbourhood.

In a scene set at the neightbourhood pool, to which everyone has fled to escape the oppressive summer heat, about to be made far worse by a citywide blackout, we see everyone’s dreams writ large against a watery Esther Williams-esque backdrop, a place where for one afternoon at least, all the good things in life seem possible.

Hope also finds eventual buoyant expression in the song “Carnaval del Barrio” where the beleaguered residents of Washington Heights are struck down by the hopelessness and heat of the blackout, only to be pulled from an enervating, soul-sapping funk by local salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) who is simultaneously caving in to the gentrifying of Washington Heights and the accompanying rising rents and claiming to keep her dream alive by moving the cheaper environs of the Bronx.

No one else really buys it a win for her but if your dream is still alive and kicking in some form, and Daniela’s is, then celebrations are in order which is why the ebullient salon owner is able to convince her now ex-neighbours to let loose and march forth into a perpetually promising sunrise once again.

Sporting immensely engaging music and the complex, thoughtful and clever lyrics for which Miranda is justly renowned and lauded, In the Heights is a heady mix of dreams surging forward and falling spirit-sappingly back, engaging characters who are going for broke even it feels like a fool’s errand and rich, sage observations of love, life and the immigrant experience which doesn’t admit for a second that things will be easy while encouraging everyone to keep dreaming, no matter the obstacles that might lie in the way.

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