Once more, for the record: I do not enjoy musicals. Yet, I chose In the Heights this weekend because I figured it would be the biggest release of the weekend. I mean, I suppose I could have seen Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, but since I never watched its predecessor, I thought I would be out of my depth with the source material. While that last statement is laughable, over a year of seeing previews for In the Heights created an anticipation that I thought might bring a large following wanting to see it. And my instinct proved mostly right, too. I caught a matinee showing, which are usually less crowded no matter what is going on in the world. While I did have to deal with a small cadre of teenage girls who clearly did not care about what was going on in the movie as they infuriatingly kept getting up and leaving the theater and whispering and giggling (I am pounding my poor keyboard at this point), I was pleased with the rest. Believe it or not, I had quite the emotional reaction to the film, too.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), known more familiarly as Navi, sits in front of a group of children as In the Heights begins. He does not appear to be in the title location, which is the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, but in more tropical surroundings. Anywhere but the Big Apple, in other words. Still, he has great memories of his old Manhattan home, and he spins his tale for those gathered to hear him. This is also how it becomes a musical for the first thing he says about this barrio is that it was filled with music. So, just imagine Latin American songs and tones under and overscoring the rest of what I am about to say. Also, much of this is a flashback. In it, Navi runs one of those ubiquitous corner convenience stores that you can find in most big cities. It is at an intersection that is the heartbeat of the area. Across the way is Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) taxi service, and on another corner is Daniela’s (Daphne Rubin-Vega) beauty salon. As each day begins, they all come through Navi’s store to buy their morning coffee and/or snacks, and many of them also purchase lottery tickets. This is how most of the characters are introduced, and one in particular that always makes his heart flutter is Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works with Daniela. Things are about to change, however. Navi dreams of moving back to his native Dominican Republic to run a seaside soda stand his father once operated. Daniela has accepted a buy out for her business, and has decided to relocate to a different part of the city. Rosario is soon to be the only one left, but this is threatened when his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace), returns from her first year attending Stanford University. She is disillusioned with her time in school, and is happy to be back in her barrio. Still, she feels the pressures of all around her who see her as the one who made it, particularly her father. The one who simply seeks her happiness is Benny (Corey Hawkins), her former boyfriend and current dispatcher for the Rosario taxi service. Nina tells her father that she missed her opportunity to re-enroll in school, and also citing lack of money, tells him that she will not be returning. This prompts Rosario to sell his business in order to give Nina the funds she needs. This is when two big events happen. The first is when Navi’s co-worker, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), fields a phone call from the state lottery office telling him that the store had sold a lottery ticket worth $96,000 that goes unclaimed. Everyone, though, is wondering if their ticket is the one. The next is a blackout that lasts for a few days. Summer in New York City is hot enough, but take away electricity and it is a dicey situation. When it begins, Navi and Vanessa were on their first date, but lose track of each other in the initial panic of the lights going out. The worst thing to come out of this is Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) death. She was a kind of grandmother to everyone in Washington Heights, particularly Navi who was taken in by her when his parents passed away. With his relationship with Vanessa seemingly in ruins and Abuela gone, there is nothing that is stopping Navi from finally departing for the Caribbean. As he packs up his stuff, along with Abuela’s, he finds one last bauble, a small lidded container. In it he finds the lost lottery ticket. On his way out of town, he decides to not only give the money to Sonny to help with his immigration status so that he can accomplish his dream of staying in the United States, but to also help Vanessa realize her own goal of moving to Downtown Manhattan to start her fashion career. This is about the time when it is revealed that the place where Navi had been regaling the children by recounting these events is actually Navi’s store. Vanessa is so touched by Navi’s actions that they make amends and he decides to stay. His store is done up to look like a tropical beach, and it is also used to display Vanessa’s clothing. And the main little girl he had been talking to is his daughter. A happy ending if ever there was one.
I get choked up even now thinking about In the Heights. I identified with Navi because I, too, am a dreamer. One of my dreams since I was a child was to be married and have a family, and it tugs at my heart strings to see the way Navi and Vanessa look at each other. You do not need sex scenes in films to know two people are in love with each other. This is Hollywood’s typical default, unfortunately, but there is nothing like that here. Another aspect of Navi’s character that I particularly enjoyed is his desire to see others achieve their dreams. Even if I am never able to attain my ultimate goal, I love to see other’s make it. In my prayers, I have come to the conclusion that, if nothing else, I can help anyone who needs assistance in getting what they desire. Seeing others happy fills my heart, too. This is a big part of Navi’s motivation for helping Vanessa and Sonny, a tradition he learned from Abuela Claudia.
In the Heights offers more lessons in regards to dreams. In reflecting on how Navi does not get to open El Sueñito (“little dream,” the seaside soda stand he sought to open in the Dominican Republic) where he originally wanted, I thought about Joseph. Not Jesus’ earthly father, but the youngest of Jacob’s sons. This was the Joseph known for prophetic dreams. His visions pertained to God’s will. Our own fantasies are a little trickier. We look to the future and think if we follow certain steps, we will get everything we ever want. Unfortunately, these do not always match with what God wants for our lives. The Bible is full of examples of people rejecting what God desires for them and it not turning out beneficially, to say the least. Joseph’s dreams proved providential for Egypt, and doing what he said helped them survive drought and famine. I also see providence in the ending of the film. Had Navi gone away to the Dominican Republic, which was his father’s fancy, he would have been haunted by the dream of what could have happened with Vanessa. I have seen the effects that can have on people, leading to many bad decisions and even a loss of Faith. At the same time, God wants nothing but good for us. If we keep Faith, one way or the other, things do work out. It may not always be precisely what we thought it would be, but it is nonetheless glorious. Any time a film can make you feel something, it has done its job well.
I did not care for the music in In the Heights, but I cried all the same. What made it all the more tolerable is my love for Latin American culture. I am also a dreamer, and while characters like Sonny are dreamers politically speaking, I loved the sense of hope that the film fosters. This has not made me a fan of musicals, nor will I now go watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other well-known work, Hamilton. But I do recommend In the Heights. It will make you feel good.