WarningMight contain spoilers.

It’s tough to write about this film. It’s filled with compelling themes and important representation.[1] It talks about important issues. It’s made by someone I like. Sadly, it just isn’t very good: not bad, but disappointing, considering its pedigree and all the excitement and anticipation around it.

The entire story is structured around the blackout, yet that event is such a small part of it. The direction is subpar, and every performance feels constrained as a result, rendering the cast inert. Vanessa has no real character, only an indistinct dream and a sleepy look. I feel bad for Stephanie Beatriz as the absurdly ridiculous Carla. I have no idea what Lin-Manuel Miranda is doing as the piragüero—he becomes more human and likeable as the movie continued, but the character is peculiar and contributes nothing to the story.[2] Usnavi feels like the work of a talented actor shackled by the style of the movie. The same goes for Sonny. The only one who seems like a complete, well-rounded character is Kevin, as you would expect from an actor of Jimmy Smits’s calibre. I really like Pike, too, but he only has one proper scene. I was bowled over by Marc Anthony, though: he’s completely unrecognizable as Sonny’s deadbeat father, to the point where I didn’t even realize it was him until I looked at the cast afterwards.

In the Heights avoids portraying its characters in a negative light, unfortunately leaving them little more than saccharine, ever-smiling caricatures for the most part. It lacks the deft hand of wonderful works like Luca , Hilda , or even Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts , all of which tell optimistic stories and create endearing, empathetic characters not by shying away from flaws or negativity but by showing the power of goodness. There are some very strange artistic choices, too, such as Nina and Benny’s dance across the side of the building and Abuella Claudia’s imagined walk through the subway as the colours shift. The sequence where Benny and Usnavi are heading to the pool with their friends and their words start to form drawings is charming, though.

The nearly continuous singing is a hindrance, because the music isn’t good either. It’s a far cry from the soundtrack to Moana . A few pieces are rousing, and ‘Pacienca y fe’ acquires significance through repetition, but most of it is awkwardly written and forgettable. I would be hard put to name a single other song. There are also too many disparate styles of singing competing with each other. Benny has a very nice voice but he doesn’t get the chance to sing anything good. Vanessa’s vaguely operatic style is completely out of place. Abuella Claudia’s voice is just as constrained as the performances are, perhaps due to age, perhaps due to poor choices while recording. Usnavi and Sonny rap well—they had exactly the right voices for this film, so it’s a shame no one else really did. That said, the highlight is the barrio carnival song (‘Carnaval del Barrio’, it seems), which builds the anticipation skillfully and focuses on fun and enjoyment (despite the unnecessary, discordant interruptions from Sonny and Nina) rather than struggle.

Despite everything, however, the movie does resonate, because it has such important things to talk about and it builds to enough of a crescendo, allowing us to excuse even the abrupt revelation at the end that the beach scene is imaginary.

  1. Though not enough, apparently.
  2. According to IMDb, he wanted to pay tribute to his grandfather. The film suffers for it, but it’s a moving gesture.