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5 Screenwriting Takeaways from the dreamy "In the Heights"

June 21, 2021
3 min read time

In the Heights is an excellent way to pop your post-pandemic theater cherry if you have yet to go. The movie feels like summer in the city: Block parties, fire hydrant swims, public pool parties, and dancing in the streets. But it’s also so much more than just a grand city gathering in the streets. It’s a story of identity, dreams and belonging. It’ll make you wanna cry. It’ll make you wanna dance. And it’ll make you wanna gather with neighborhood friends even if it’s just on your front stoop.

Here are your five screenwriting takeaways from In the Heights.

1. Don’t be afraid to be grand.  It’s so rare to get granted a budget that lets a filmmaker achieve their wildest dreams, but it feels like director Jon M. Chu got exactly that, and deservedly so. The beating heart of this movie is the dreams that keep Washington Heights ticking. In a largely immigrant community, sometimes even simple dreams seem impossible (like being undocumented and going to college). To get a story that both honestly addresses those dreams and does so with all the grand magic of a Broadway story — it’s something beautiful to behold. The set pieces are almost too many to mention, but a huge public pool dance sequence (read Chu’s story on how he achieved it here) and a dance party in the middle of a hidden building courtyard come to mind. The film has a magical quality to it. It’s clear every detail — from a street corner to a window box, to a graffiti mural was thought about, planned out, and created by Chu, creator Lin Manuel Miranda, and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes in the creation of this piece. 

2. Your path is your own.  This movie is filled with sueñitos, or little dreams; the very idea that gets you up in the morning, that keeps your heart ticking, and, sometimes, even a whole neighborhood moving. For lead character Usnavi, his dreams are complicated. He imagines taking over a family spot in the Dominican Republic and starting up his own business there, getting back to his roots, and living life near the tropical sand and ocean breeze. But he equally imagines that his high school friend and neighborhood crush, Vanessa, could just as easily hold the key to his future. Usnavi’s path doesn’t always feel clear (nor does Vanessa’s) when the entire tight-knit community on your block may have an opinion on what’s right for you — and same with society at large. Ultimately, it’s clear Usnavi is his own man, paving his own way, in a country where there’s not necessarily a clear path for the dreamers it attracts. 

3. Community matters.  In a time when gentrification is changing neighborhoods around the country, and homeownership is fast becoming out of reach for an entire generation, the community of In the Heights feels invaluable. The struggle to have a life well-lived and maintain what you have is felt in much of the movie. "Shop local" has almost never felt so life and death. It’s a lovely lesson for a writer to know that while your set pieces can feel as big as Broadway, your message can be as simple as: “It matters when you support your corner store."

4. Family can be chosen.  Life can look different for those who leave family behind in search of a better life. Where extended family once filled holidays, neighborhood friends may need to fill the void. As the relationships of a community grow, so does the sense of both pride and family. When high rent forces you out, maybe it's worth it to take the D train to continue to support the nail salon that used to be on the corner. One thing’s for sure, when one actually does have to change locales, anything is possible — and they may just get a limo ride to do it — when your community has your back. 

5. Patience and faith.  Abuela Claudia embodies the message that community is everything. Never having kids of her own, she serves as a neighborhood matriarch. She’s there to help you have a celebratory dinner, a good cry, or just to listen to your dreams. Abuelita’s message to her community is simple, and one her mother taught her when she was young: “pacienca y fe.” Patience, and faith. There is almost no better message for a screenwriter. The writing of anything worth writing (and getting right) takes an abundance of patience and faith. So does every good dream, really. 

Final Takeaway:  In the Heights's glorious Broadway spectacle is deserving of all the hype while buoying the dreams of its incredibly likable characters. But more than that, the movie paints such a lovely idea of home. In a country full of people who have come from somewhere else, the film reminds us home is constantly what you make of it, and it should be a place of dignity and hope for everyone who chooses to live there. A place where dreams can be born, and then born again.


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