HBO Go review: 'In the Heights' touches hearts with message, dancing

Fred Hawson

Posted at Sep 18 2021 06:15 AM

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera on 'In the Heights.' Handout
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera on 'In the Heights.' Handout

Washington Heights was a poor section of New York City populated by immigrants from various Central and South American countries and Caribbean islands. A young man named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) owned a little bodega selling coffee, drinks and lottery tickets. But he thought he had not made much in his life so far, and longed to follow his dream to return back to his homeland, the Dominican Republic. The story of how Usnavi got his unique name will have a scene of its own, as he tells the story to a group of little kids.

Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) worked on nails at Daniela's (Daphne Rubin-Vega) beauty salon, but her dream was to open up her own fashion boutique. Nina (Leslie Grace) was the first in the Heights to pass Stanford, but she could not cope with the pressure and prejudice she faced there. Benny (Corey Hawkins) worked as a dispatcher for Nina's father Kevin Rosario's (Jimmy Smits) taxi company, which supported her tuition demands. The heart of their community was Consuelo, whom everyone had adopted as their abuela (Olga Merediz).

This film directed by Jon M. Cho ("Crazy Rich Asians") was based on the hit 2008 Broadway show that made its composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda a household name. Miranda took the tough decisions that young people living in poverty in New York had to make in their lives, and brought them to life in vibrant songs of Latin flavor, many of them employing his distinct rapid rapping style, which will be developed further in his next hit show "Hamilton." Miranda had a featured role in the film as the piragua man selling shaved ice. 

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The best songs were those awesome dancing that involved the whole community. The opening song "In the Heights" introduced us to the neighborhood and its people. Set in a public swimming pool, "96000" was about the prize money of a winning lottery ticket. "Carnaval del Barrio" was Daniela's pickup speech to cheer up everyone depressed by the prolonged electrical blackout. Special effects were employed to liven up songs, like "When the Sun Goes Down" had Nina and Benny dancing on the side of a building. 

I had seen a local stage production of "In the Heights" back in 2011, and there were plot differences in this film adaptation. Lacking the infectious energy of a live performance, the pace of the film could feel slow in certain parts, and the storytelling may not gel together too well in other parts. 

However, the heartwarming emotion of the words in the screenplay, as adapted by Quiara Alegría Hudes from her original book, still radiated strongly to touch the hearts of viewers, even if they don't share exactly the same challenges.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."