This movie wasn’t for me.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I didn’t love every single moment of it, because I did. I was entranced by the story of this tight-knit Latino community as they navigate their way through life, their struggles, their dreams, and even the brutal New York summer heat.
I’m not saying that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics and music weren’t mesmerizing, because they were. After one viewing I was already humming “Piragua” without realizing it and, even though I was watching on my laptop, I still felt as if I was watching it on Broadway (where it originated in 2008).
I’m not saying that the ensemble cast of Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smits, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, and Lin-Manuel Miranda wasn’t an effortless performance that transported me into these lives and stories, because it was.
Basically yes, everything about In the Heights was stunning, but it wasn’t made for me.
The best way I can describe it is if a family member handed me an old love letter from years ago. Intimate and personal but voluntarily shared with me, the offer of this letter would be as if to say “hey, I’m inviting you into this part of my story so that you can witness and understand things that aren’t part of your daily life.” And so I read the letter – not from a position of voyeurism or entitlement – but from a place of respect for the person who placed it in my hand. And when I finish the letter, I look up into the shining eyes of the one who owns it, they smile gently and nod and, for that moment, I am transported into a story that lives and breathes as it is passed down from generation to generation.
It isn’t my story. But oh, how I long to help steward it.
Most viewers are going to be able to connect with the central theme of fulfilling dreams and destinies. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a corner bodega, a small convenience store that connects the community of Washington Heights with good coffee and charisma. Longing for the return to his roots in the Dominican Republic, everything Usnavi does is to support that dream – from supporting his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) to caring for the neighborhood grandmother Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) – every day moving closer to that realization. But in the midst of pursuing his “El Sueñito” (Little Dream), those closest to him are navigating their own life changes and dreams. Nina (Leslie Grace), the pride of her family, friends, and entire community, has returned from her first year in college lost and homesick. Leaning into her old flame Benny (Corey Hawkins) while arguing with her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), Nina has to decide where her future lies and what she will do with it. But while she is yearning to stay, aspiring fashion designer (and Usnavi’s crush) Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is doing everything in her power to move out of town and into high society. Together they all have to work through uncovering not only who they are, but what they are meant to do.
It is through the cultural strength of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s composition that this story is told, and it is here where I am back to reading that love letter. I can’t fully grasp the pain of being treated as less-than, or the fear that undermines the hope for their future. I don’t understand the language (literally), and I don’t know if my definition of community will ever be as robust as what I witnessed during this film. But I saw it. I heard it. I felt it. And this is where I hand that love letter back, forever changed by its contents and with a small piece of it engraved upon my heart and in my mind. Never to forget the beauty of a story that pulled back the veil just enough for me to see beyond my own view, while still preserving the intimacy between the author and the recipient. And I am grateful.
In the Heights is now streaming on HBO Max and in theaters.