In the Heights (5 stars)

In the Heights

This energetic adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's stage musical is set to be one of the films of the summer

'It's what we need right now' has probably been overapplied but in the case of In the Heights the phrase couldn't be more apt. Turning up the temperature and busting open some fire hydrants, this infectiously energetic adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' New York-set stage musical from Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu brings much-missed carnival vibes and industrial-strength emotion to the big screen. It acts as a love letter to the immigrant experience, whilst conveying the complexity of its characters' relationships with their adopted country.

Unfolding in a rapidly changing Washington Heights, it introduces us to Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) who, as the owner of a popular bodega, is right at the centre of his Hispanic community. Currently living with his adopted abuela, Claudia (Olga Merediz), Usnavi is planning to return to his country of birth, the Dominican Republic, which he has romanticised, and where he lived until the age of eight. His ambition: to buy and restore his father's old beach bar.

Usnavi's story intersects with that of his crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who is employed at the local salon but dreams of becoming a fashion designer, and that of their friend Nina (Leslie Grace), a Stanford student home for the summer, who is struggling to fit in on campus and whose crippling university fees are threatening to bankrupt her cab-firm owner father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits). Nina's ex, Benny (Straight Outta Compton's Corey Hawkins), also features.

It may take a moment to acclimatise to the shamelessly earnest emoting but In the Heights' sincerity is one of its selling points. Miranda's astonishing rhythm and rhymes are pulled off with aplomb by the winning cast; those bringing to life the central quartet of young dreamers are a few years older than their characters but they deliver wide-eyed, gutsily vulnerable performances.

In contrast to the distracting wealth porn of Crazy Rich Asians, the film makes imaginative use of ostensibly unglamorous locations: the musical number '96,000', set at a public swimming pool and choreographed to perfection, is an extraordinary and amusing highlight. In the Heights takes the occasional flight of more outlandish fancy – the gravity-defying dance which accompanies 'When the Sun Goes Down' captures the soaring sentiment of the romantic declarations, but the film works better when it keeps its feet on the ground.

It's easy to lose yourself in the festival-like atmosphere and forget how just a short time ago a film with a predominantly Latino cast would have been impossible to get made (and indeed it did have trouble getting off the ground) and In the Heights positively bursts with pride for the fusion of cultures it depicts. If its heartfelt, insightful storytelling is touching – huge credit to screenwriter Hudes for that – it's also a lot of fun, with a trio of riotous salon ladies (played by Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco and Daphne Rubin-Vega) stealing their fair share of scenes. This feels like a proper treat following some tough times, so get in line for a toe-tapping, ass-shaking extravaganza.

Available to watch in cinemas from Fri 18 Jun.

In the Heights

  • 5 stars
  • 2021
  • US
  • 2h 23min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Jon M. Chu
  • Written by: Quiara Alegría Hudes, Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits
  • UK release: 18 June 2021

A musical set in Washington Heights, New York and centred around a charismatic bodega owner dreaming of a better life.