Before the rousing success of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway hit, Hamilton, came the 2008 hit, In the Heights which has now been adapted for the big screen by original writer Quiara Alegria Hudes and directed by Jon Chu (Crazy Rich Asians).
Like Chu's other films, In the Heights, is chock full of color, movement and big-screen flair. Taking over the central role from Miranda is Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, the owner of a corner bodega in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. The mostly Latino area has a palpable sense of community, presided over by everyone's favorite grandma, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her Tony-nominated role). But not everyone on the block wants to be there.
Usnavi dreams of restoring his father's bar in his native Dominican Republic but his attraction to the lovely Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and his care for his cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), has him wondering if relocation is the right move.
Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in "In the Heights." © 2021 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Then there's Benny (Corey Hawkins), the talented car service dispatcher who has his eye on the owner's daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace). Nina went off to Stanford last year, carrying the hopes of the community on her shoulders. Now she's back in the Heights, covering up her dropping out by claiming financial aid difficulties to her father (Jimmy Smits).
When Usnavi's bodega sells a willing lottery ticket, the whole community, in one of the most amazing musical numbers of recent film history, wonders what they would do with the winnings.
Like the play, the movie showcases the Latino immigrant culture but with a focus on joy and community support rather than gangs and drugs. The barrio's inhabitants are Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, who come into the bodega for their morning coffee or meet at the nail salon to hang out with the other ladies. But the difficulties facing the community are not glossed over. Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the salon's owner, is relocating to the Bronx, being forced out by gentrification and rising rent. Sonny, who dreams of going to college, deals with the reality of being undocumented. Vanessa, a budding fashion designer, wants to relocate to the downtown fashion district but can't afford the rent in that area of the city. Nina went off to Stanford as the embodiment of the community's hope for the future, but she failed to fit in at the Ivy League school.
A dance scene from "In the Heights." © 2021 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Even so, as the cast of characters live through a power blackout in the hot summer, they are there to support each other and encourage each one to live out their sueñitos (little dreams), whatever those may be.
The believing viewer needs to be aware that, unfortunately, certain things (like condom promotion) and LGBTQ lifestyles are depicted in the film and may need to be addressed and talked about, especially if watching with teens.
The magnificent thing, however, about "In the Heights" is the strong sense of community that we could all do with a little more of. If each of the characters had to deal with their hardships alone, the story wouldn't have the sense of joy and hope that it does. What strong community provides is people to celebrate with us when we're experiencing the ups of life and people to offer love and support when the downs get us.
About the Author
Sister Hosea Rupprecht is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, a religious community dedicated to evangelization with the media. She holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto and an MA in Media Literacy from Webster University in St. Louis.
Sr. Hosea is director of the East Coast office of the Pauline Center for Media Studies, based in Staten Island, NY, and speaks on media literacy and faith to catechists, parents, youth, and young adults. Together with Father Chip Hines, she is the co-host of Searchlight, a Catholic movie review show on Catholic TV. Sr. Hosea is the author of How to Watch Movies with Kids: A Values-Based Strategy, released by Pauline Books & Media.
For the past 15 years, she has facilitated various film dialogues for both children and adults, as well as given presentations on integrating culture, faith and media.