Lights up on Washington Heights…
Summer’s starting, audiences are returning to theaters, the world is going back to normal, and the long-awaited movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical is finally here.
After years in Hollywood Development Hell, In the Heights has made it to the big screen. Not only is it a landmark in terms of on-screen representation for Latinx minorities, but the film also features a unique storytelling technique every writer can learn from.
There’s no antagonist.
Lemme say that again. In a movie that has groundbreaking on-screen representation — that’s getting a superhero-esque marketing push from Warner Bros., no less — there is absolutely no villain or antagonizing force in the plot.
And there doesn’t have to be.
What is In the Heights About?
The story of In the Heights takes place over a few incredibly hot summer days in the Washington Heights neighborhood in upper Manhattan. It centers on Usnavi, a young bodega owner who yearns to return to his family’s roots in the Dominican Republic, and a cast of other dreamers who live on the block.
In the titular opening song, Usnavi establishes who everyone is and what they’re struggling with in the barrio. As the melody crescendos, Usnavi (played in the film by the incredible Anthony Ramos) tells the audience exactly what they can expect from the story.
“We’re taking a flight to a couple days in the life of what it’s like in Washington Heights.” And that’s exactly what you get — a couple days of what it’s like in Washington Heights.
We see characters wrestle with decisions they must make — to leave or stay, to come clean or continue lying, to give up or keep chasing a dream. Usnavi, Benny, Nina, Vanessa, Sonny, Mr. Rosario, and the ladies at Daniela’s salon all struggle to deal with the harsh realities of life.
Technique: Slice of Life Storytelling
In the Heights is slice-of-life storytelling at its finest. Audiences are dropped in, given a whole new world and cast of characters to love, allowed to spend some time, and then sent on their way.
There’s no uber-powerful villain to defeat, no fight for survival against the elements or disastrous apocalyptic event. The characters in In the Heights are simply up against real life and everything that comes with it.
One might argue that “gentrification,” “death,” or “the blackout” serve as antagonists, but I’d say that while those are all present in the story, they serve only as elements of conflict and not constant antagonizers within the plot.
What Drives In the Heights' Story?
Instead, what propels the story forward are the tensions that exist between and within the characters.
Every character has a sueñito — a “little dream,” as Usnavi explains, or, for storytelling purposes, a goal. In some way, they’re each grappling with the issues of home, identity, community, and legacy.
Tension and obstacles are inherent when a character wants something — whether that be to move downtown, get the girl, or find success in America. A goal creates an arc, a journey for the character to take; it gives them something that propels them forward. And as long as that arc comes to fruition in some way, you know you’ve got a successful story on your hands.
There doesn’t have to be a Thanos-level antagonist, a nuclear event that alters the world as we know it, or a villain with access to Jeff Bezos levels of money to spend on weapons. Real life is dramatic enough, and there’s plenty of tension in everyday situations to sustain the plot of a two-hour movie.
When this slice-of-life style storytelling is done well, the result is something like In the Heights — a joyous, exuberant, wonderful tale that reminds us just how incredible life can be if we only have the paciencia y fe to look around and see it.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.