Review: In the Heights

Score: A-

Director: Jon M. Chu

Cast: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rated: PG-13

It feels like it's been a long time since we've gotten a great summer movie. It feels even longer since we've gotten a great movie musical. But In the Heights, the dazzling new film from Jon M. Chu, checks those boxes and more.

Based on the the Tony Award-winning musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda – well before he became an international icon with Hamilton – it's far more relatable, if less musically impressive, than that phenomenon.

Anthony Ramos delivers a star-making turn as Usnavi, who manages his family's bodega in Washington Heights, but dreams of restoring the nightclub his father once owned in the Dominican Republic. In an immediately gripping opening number ("In the Heights"), we meet the most important characters and learn what drives them. This is hard to do, but these performers make it look easy.

This is a movie all about dreams, but not big ones. Sueñitos, Usnavi calls them. His love interest Vanessa (a luminous Melissa Barrera) wants to move closer to downtown to a nicer apartment and start her own fashion line. His best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants to take over the business from Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and woo Kevin's daughter Nina (Leslie Grace). She's visiting from Stanford, where she feels out of place but still pressured to succeed. She's the first person from her family to go to college. Watching over all of them is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the emotional lynchpin of the film. Her solo number, performed in a subway tunnel, is incredibly moving.

But while the music and acting is exceptional, where the film really shines is in the staging by Chu and choreographer Christopher Scott. Many dance numbers feature dozens, even hundreds of extras, all pulling off impressive moves. But even in more intimate scenes, like a duet between Nina and Benny, there's such imagination. They dance up and down the side of a building as the sun sets on their barrio. It's pure movie magic.

The film does take a few narrative shortcuts that probably played better on stage. Arguments can arise out of nowhere and epiphanies can happen just as quickly. But there's such a pervasive sense of place and environment that it doesn't matter. Even if the characters are breaking a sweat, the movie never does.

With incredible dance numbers, a heartfelt story and an insanely talented (and insanely hot) cast, there's absolutely nothing more you could ask for from a big summer movie. In the Heights was worth the wait.

*This film is available in theaters and on HBO Max.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.