Conflict between father and son is hardly a new cinematic subject, but it’s given a distinctive, energetic spin in “Washington Heights.” Alfredo de Villa’s HDV tale is set in the Cuban-American community of New York City, where widower Eddie Ramirez (Tomas Milian) runs a bodega. His son Carlos (Manny Perez) is an aspiring comic-book artist whose dreams his father dismisses; Carlos, on the other hand, still won’t forgive his father for his philandering while his wife was alive. The relationship between the two men is mirrored in that of Carlos’ closest friend Mickey (Danny Hoch) and his father Sean (Jude Ciccoletta); Mickey, a dim-bulb type, works as a super in his father’s apartment buildings, but wants desperately to seek his fortune at a bowling tournament in Las Vegas. Sean, however, refuses to fund the trip, dismissing his son’s aspirations as absurd. Two events change the boys’ lives. When Eddie is paralyzed during a robbery of his store, Carlos must set aside his professional hopes–as well as his commitment to girlfriend Maggie (Andrea Navedo)–to take care of his father and run the business, which is heavily in debt. Meanwhile Mickey absconds with cash he discovers in the apartment of Maggie’s drug-dealing brother Angel (Bobby Cannavale) to solve Carlos’ money woes and finance his Nevada expedition. The resolution of the latter circumstance is, unfortunately, more than a little melodramatic, but the rapprochement between Carlos and Eddie is handled with considerable finesse.
The film is helped over the familiarity of its themes and some contrived moments by the sense of place it evokes, with the grittiness of the surroundings well captured in Claudio Chea’s DV photography, and by the urgency with which the cast approaches the material. Milian is the standout, bringing subtlety to a part that could easily have been played as a cliche. Perez doesn’t manage the same degree of shading, but his straightforward, energetic style complements Milian’s work nicely; and Hoch paints a fine portrait of a likable lug. The supporting performances are solid down the line, and the use of non-professionals in smaller parts lends a good deal of authenticity. Technically this is a modest production, but the homeliness strikes the right mood.
“Washington Heights” doesn’t match the expressiveness or nuance of “Raising Victor Vargas,” another recent picture that explored the world of a New York neighborhood. But while it’s more conventionally structured and less imaginative, De Villa’s film is an affecting reworking of a traditional story, told with passion, sensitivity, and a little clumsiness.