Making a go of it against the odds.
That, in short, is the essence of In the Heights, a feel good musical based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (the man behind the international smash hit Hamilton) Broadway show (2008).
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), whose unusual name came about in amusing fashion – which is explained well into the movie – owns his own corner store or bodega in culturally diverse Washington Heights.
He employs his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV).
Usnavi’s parents have passed, but he dreams of moving back to his native land, the Dominican Republic, which he associates with the best years of his life (he left when he was only eight).
Enmeshed in the lifeblood of his US neighbourhood, Usnavi gets that chance after lawyer Alejandro (Mateo Gomez) secures Usnavi’s father’s old premises – a bar by the beach – which has been flattened by a hurricane.
Usnavi also has designs on a pretty aspiring fashion designer, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in a beauty and hair salon, but is too shy and awkward to ask her out.
Usnavi grew up with the talented and high achieving Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), whose proud father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), owns a private taxi company.
Nina has just returned from Stanford University.
Everyone’s expectations of her were sky high, but she didn’t have the experience she wanted or expected.
She takes back up with the gregarious Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works for her father.
Also big in the frame is Abuela Claudia (Olga Meredith), who is a grandmotherly figure to all.
That is not to overlook the feisty Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who owns the hair and beauty salon, and who is being driven out of the hood by financial pressures.
Another key plot thread involves a missing US$96,000 lottery ticket, sold at Usnavi’s store, that can’t be found.
The movie’s timeframe is set against a heatwave and blackout affecting the neighbourhood.
The full tale emerges as Usnavi relays the stories of the earlier years to four eager youngsters.
Much of the narrative evolves through the music, a significant part of which – like Hamilton – is fast-paced, but readily understandable, hip hop.
It is delivered seamlessly, often accompanied by breathtakingly choreographed dance numbers, as good as any I have seen on film.
One of the many standouts in this regard takes place in a massive swimming pool.
Attention to detail is a distinguishing feature of all the dance sequences.
The screenplay is by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the book of the musical, while the picture is directed by Jon M. Chu, the man at the helm of Crazy Rich Asians.
In the Heights has a warm, homely feel throughout.
While it tells personal stories, it is also about Latin Americans’ struggle for recognition.
Anthony Ramos comes across as effortlessly natural and likeable in the lead role.
The other standout for me was Leslie Grace, who readily channels the conflicted Nina, looking to find her place in the world and carrying the community’s weight of expectations.
While a long sit at close to 2½ hours, In the Heights is an enjoyable watch, notwithstanding the fact that it doesn’t have the gravitas of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s later work, Hamilton (2015).
Rated PG, it scores an 8½ out of 10.