‘In the Heights’ Review: The Movie This Summer Needed

The return to cinemas has been fraught and not entirely satisfying. I am someone who absolutely adores the big screen, and can’t help but feel that anything released straight to the home qualifies as a “TV Movie” with all the connotations of cheapness and small-scale that term carries with it. It’s remarkable to me that a Wonder Woman sequel has actually been released. Without the cinema, I just can’t help but see it as “Bambi 2” of the DCEU. A novelty. This is a hang-up of mine but big movies needs to be on the big screen.

Now that we are returning to cinemas we are seeing mostly ghosts. There’s a conciliatory feel to the big releases of today, movies that were robbed of their big moments last year and are now merely screened for lack of anything new. It’s tricky to see anything that didn’t premier at some point in film festivals from the last decade. Thank god, then, for In the Heights. Although also due for release last year (and based on a 15 year old musical), this film feels brand new and the breath of fresh air we needed to breathe life into the cinema experience.

The story is set within the New York neighbourhood of Washington Heights where a heatwave is in full swing and a blackout is days away. On the sun scorched streets, young people of mostly Dominican descent dream of more. Whether it’s returning home, finding a community, escaping the neighbourhood, or making it big, they all go out each day and hustle as best they can. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) leads the cast in this almost entirely sung through musical.

The immigrant experience is essential to the interweaving stories of In The Heights. It’s a film about the American dream and what it costs. What’s most fascinating is how this is explored generationally. The eldest members of this community dimly recall the warmth and comfort of a land they were forced to abandon. The youngest dream of returning home, and escaping the persistent discrimination that’s dogged their community since they arrived. It’s a film about being trapped between two worlds and ultimately finding the strength to create a new one right where they stand.

To fully tell this story, the vast cast had to do their utmost to create authentic and compelling characters with sometimes little screen time. No body is two dimensional, every character is charming but barely containing a deep hurt or longing. Olga Merediz and Daphne Rubin-Vega shine as two very different matriarchs in the neighbourhood, each offering spiritual guidance to the young people around them, albeit in very different ways.

As a movie musical, this is pure magic. The songs have catchy melodies, clever lyrics and a hefty sound that gets the heart racing. The staging blends fantastical elements with the natural. Characters begin gently singing on a balcony before effortlessly defying gravity to dance on the sides of the buildings. Director John M Chu creates a uniquely stylish world around the music that feels rich and authentic. I can think of nothing better to welcome weary cineastes back to church.

Five Stars

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