It’s a warm summer day in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in the uppermost part of Manhattan. Vibrantly colored buildings saturate the streets with energy. Eventually, we come to the El Sueñito bodega, a daily pass-through for the residents of Washington Heights and their dreams.
“In The Heights” (2021) is a film adaptation of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s 2005 Tony Award-winning play, whose music and lyrics he wrote and based on Quiara Alegría Hudes’ eponymous book. The picture presents challenges brought on by pursuing dreams in the barrio of Washington Heights. The bright, intricate numbers enhance the connection of the tightly-knit community and illustrate the passion with which protagonists reach for their dreams. It follows a handful of protagonists but primarily focuses on Usnavi de la Vega (played by Anthony Ramos of the play’s 2018 Kennedy Center production) from the Dominican Republic and Nina Rosario (played by Leslie Grace) whose father is from Puerto Rico. While strong in several categories, the film tackles too many storylines and ultimately fails to make a statement on the screen.
That being said, a lot of the film sits well. The film’s attentiveness to language makes my ears melt. The pronunciation of Washington Heights as Washintón Heights, the interchange between Spanish and English — no, not “Spanglish” — and the decision to not translate certain Spanish lines, among other Spanish pronunciations and phrases, makes the work stand out, ultimately claiming space for bilingual art in Anglocentric Hollywood.
Furthermore, the musical numbers are elaborate, embodying the liveliness of the Heights. The dance of the opening number is beautiful with its precision and execution of Salsa on 2, a New York-style of salsa. Hints of “West Side Story” are sprinkled across the film, notably with the club scene during the blackout. Alas, if only scenes like this could be seen at street intersections in real life.
The film centers on the different sueñitos in the Heights — both those that are versions of the “American Dream” and those that stray from it. Additionally, it challenges the existence of the concept itself. Kevin Rosario, for example, contemplates whether he should keep his car business running or sell it in order to pay for his daughter’s expensive college education. In other words, either his dream of being a business owner or that of putting his daughter through school has to give; he can’t fulfill his multi-part American Dream.
Despite the film’s visual and musical appeal, its story tackles too much at times. Parts feel like they are being dragged out merely to elongate the film. The audience has to juggle the following stories, among others in the film:
- Nina’s challenges at college and fear of disappointing her father,
- Nina balancing the above with her relationship with Benny,
- Usnavi’s interest in Vanessa but simultaneous desire to return home to the Dominican Republic,
- Kevin Rosario’s struggle to maintain the family car business,
- Vanessa’s aspiration to someday be a fashion designer,
- Abuela’s health challenges and deep care and concern for her chosen family,
And the audience has to do so all while trying to keep track of how they’re connected. Though I acknowledge that the film is an adaptation of the play, I would have appreciated a more in-depth approach, where the film could have explored a couple of main characters and their plots more closely. The current product feels like it glossed over important narratives like the reality of being undocumented in the United States, the problematic experiences Nina had at school and, more central to the story, exactly why Usnavi yearns to return home to the Caribbean.
Along with being too ambitious comes Usnavi’s dissonant and sudden attitude shift toward his sueñito. His dream of returning to the D.R. is, unfortunately, not fulfilled because his new dream is Vanessa and creating a life with her. I was really rooting for Usnavi to fulfill what seems like his true goal of returning to and living the rest of his life in the Dominican Republic. The film, but really the play’s story, feels somewhat cliche; someone is diverted from realizing their desires because of a love interest. Usnavi repeatedly states how the best days of his life were in the Dominican Republic as he views pictures of his former trip there. This fairy tale ending makes him come off as complacent. Usnavi’s changed sueñito may be more complicated than my disappointment, though.
Usnavi stepped up to the plate as the role of barrio leader became vacant upon Abuela’s death. Viewing Vanessa’s art at his bodega helps Usnavi realize his dedication to his community remains, a conviction he feels more strongly as Abuela’s absence is mourned by the neighborhood. Moreover, while Usnavi steps into this role more consciously toward the end of the film, perhaps the role was never vacant to begin with; Usnavi fills this role from the start as he and his store were the paths people took to complete their dreams. From supplying residents of the Heights with pan caliente y café con leche to start their days to providing a listening ear, Usnavi is crucial to preserving the spirit of Washington Heights. While this ending demonstrates the strong allegiance Usnavi has to his Washington Heights community, I remain dissatisfied because Usnavi never truly goes home even as he constantly yearns for it through the film.
With respect to cinematic choices, some of the scenes feel awkward. Nina and Benny’s dancing scene on the side of a building feels like it comes out of nowhere. The film is based on the real world — with other “unrealistic” scenes like the dance sequence at the pool still being fundamentally possible — so this magical realism element creates some dissonance. Similarly, other special effects like the spontaneous rotation of the manhole cover in the opening scene and the animation during Usnavi and friends’ walk to the pool add to this unrealistic feel. These sections didn’t translate well from the stage to the screen, unlike the stellar dances performed by the film’s cast.
“I really wanted to write new roles for Latino actors, and they say, ‘write what you know,’ so I wrote about my neighborhood,” Washington Heights native Manuel-Miranda told The One Show. The homage, while sincere, does not meet the anticipation that surrounded its release. At times, “In The Heights” feels like no more than a concert because it bit off more plot than it could chew.
This article has been updated to correctly name the actress who plays Nina, Leslie Grace. The Daily regrets this error.