Whether it’s Luke Skywalker struggling to escape from his uncle’s farm or George Bailey avoiding his father’s Savings and Loan like the plague, stories about kids turning their backs on their fathers’ careers are about as common as…well, the offspring of famous actors and directors following in their parents’ footsteps. (Okay, so the Luke Skywalker example kinda sucked, but I drew a blank…) Granted, then, that director Alfredo De Villa’s “Washington Heights” isn’t the most original concept in the world. That’s not to say, however, that this gritty urban drama isn’t an authentic and inherently compelling film nonetheless.
Carlos (Manny Perez) is the son in this latest incarnation of that well-worn storyline. Carlos wants to be a comic book illustrator and, while it seems as if he has the right mechanical skills to succeed, something is missing. His struggle to land a full-time drawing gig goes from difficult to nearly impossible after his father Eddie (Toman Milian), the popular owner of the neighborhood bodega, gets shot and paralyzed in a senseless robbery. Faced with the added burden of operating the bodega as well as providing round the clock medical care for his stricken father, Carlos’ life arrives at a crossroads: he can either run his father’s shop and close up shop on his own dreams and aspirations…or he can incorporate the shop’s back-to-his-roots experiences into his artwork.
There aren’t many surprises in “Washington Heights,” which makes it all the more amazing that this film is as good and engaging as it is. Perez oozes root-for-him charisma as Carlos, which helps tremendously, but what makes this film work is its sheer authenticity. Nowhere is this more on display than in a truly heart wrenching scene in which Eddie, just home from the hospital, has an “accident.” The shame and frustrated humiliation on Eddie’s face combined with the concern mixed with disgust written all over Carlos’ face as he cleans his father up captures this film’s gritty feel and tone like few scenes in other films ever do.
Far from flashy and surprisingly devoid of much in the way of sex and cartoonish violence, “Washington Heights” is instead a powerful no-frills drama. It’s a film that never flinches from its colorful, if sometimes cruel namesake neighborhood and the people who populate it.