‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Review

Dear Evan Hansen has already been thoroughly drubbed by the critical community and the Internet. After coming in hot as the golden child of the 2017 Broadway scene, the film has had more of an uphill battle, thanks to the trifecta of issues involving a cultural backlash, the problematic story’s finding of a large audience, and Ben Platt’s unfortunate attempt to look like a high schooler. When approaching a film that’s been as thoroughly reviled as this one, it’s best to approach as objectively as possible. It doesn’t matter what I think of the stage show (mixed-positive), or what the critical consensus may be. What matters is what I think, of this particular movie, at this specific time. And while my thoughts on the film are as complicated as they are about the stage show, I have to say: the overall efforts of the cast and crew to make this f*cked up story work managed to impress me more than it disappointed.

Evan Hansen (Platt, reprising his Tony-winning role) is your average struggling high school senior. He has no friends, struggles with Social Anxiety Disorder, and now has a broken arm from a mysterious accident in a tree. At the request of his therapist and his mother Heidi (Julianne Moore), Evan has begun writing a series of letters to himself, as a coping mechanism. When a particularly negative one is stolen by school loner and burnout Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), Evan fears the worst. But things take a more bizarre turn: as it turns out, Connor has killed himself. And because Evan’s note was in his pocket, written from an outside perspective, it is widely assumed that the letter is his suicide note. Having believed that their son had no friends, grieving parents Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) turn to Evan for answers. And wanting to give them a fairy tale ending for their son, Evan horrifically obliges, creating fantastical stories about their secret friendship. Soon Evan’s story spirals out of control, spawning after-school meetings with the family, a relationship with his crush – and Connor’s sister – Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), and a social movement that takes the world by storm.

The most abundantly clear flaw facing Dear Evan Hansen is that Broadway scribe and screenwriter Steven Levenson has refused to update his work for the screen. While this does apply to the dialogue, which at often times feels stilted, obvious, and overly delivered to the balcony, this more specifically applies to the central character of Evan and the lie he tells at the outset. Flawed protagonists are not a bad thing on stage or screen – most times, they make for better stories. But the problem here is that I don’t believe that Levenson – and perhaps Platt himself – believe that Evan is flawed. Every twist and turn the story takes predicated on the disturbing lie that Evan tells seems to accept the notion that this is everyone’s fault but Evan’s. He’s forced into this lie by Cynthia, who desperately needs this fabrication to be true for closure, watches its spiral because of Alana’s social-climbing ambitions, all the while presupposing that Evan is a passenger in the entire ordeal. In fact, he even has a climactic song where he outright blames them for it.

All of this could perhaps be forgivable if the film accepted two key details from the outset: first, if Evan actually learns and accepts responsibility for the entire ordeal – something I’m not convinced is the case by the conclusion. And second, that the world is a cynical place willing to capitalize on mental illness without wanting to actually do anything to address the issue. Yet the film paints this entire situation as wholeheartedly earnest. It thinks it is cute that Evan sings an entire song listing the things he loves about a girl through her dead brother. When Evan’s story goes viral, the world earnestly embraces the movement and posts self-serving videos that are never treated as just that – self-righteous attempts to look moral on the Internet. Hell, it doesn’t even bother exploring the toxicity and pure evil of social media until it becomes convenient for the story. I don’t know, maybe the entire plot works better when the protagonist looks like a child who just made the biggest f*cking mistake of his life and not a 40-year-old man preying on grieving teenagers. But as it stands, the whole story lacks the cynicism it needs to make this story fly.

Hansen’s story also consistently struggles to overcome its haphazard understanding of mental illness. Now, personally, I think this is a very strong story about SAD (Social Anxiety Disorder). Evan’s character, and the traits that go along with it, feel honest and understandable, even if the performance doesn’t quite possess that same “oomph.” The issues I have with the story instead arise with the film’s handling of depression and suicide. In many ways, Levenson’s story seems most akin with the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which was similarly earnest in its desire to state “It Gets Better” and help suicidal teens feel less alone. However, both projects suffer a severe misunderstanding about the illness and symptoms that accompany it – and weirdly end up glorifying the illness in the long run.

The film suffers the same issue as the play, in that it never knows exactly how to handle Connor (despite Ryan’s terrific performance). He’s a complete mystery to us – he had no friends, his only living onscreen moments involve screaming at others, and the only memories people share about him involve his drug addiction and anger issues. It’s almost as if the film is implying that, because he’s such a blank slate, he deserves to have Evan abuse his memory – or worse, that his is a death that won’t be missed. The film also makes the caustic misstep of implying that anxiety, depression, and suicide can be cured by just, like, being super nice to each other. Did you know that? Wow, wonder why we haven’t tried that before?

Levenson’s screenplay is the film’s biggest hurdle, and it isn’t quite cleared by Platt’s central performance. Look, there are a lot of complicated emotions surrounding Platt reprising his groundbreaking role all these years later. While I, in theory, get it, it certainly is disconcerting, especially with Platt out there declaring that “the film could only be made because of him.” What he really means is “My daddy only made this film because of me.” Yet the film has been made, with Platt in the central role, and that is what we have to explore. If I had to describe Platt’s performance in comparison to another, I would have to say Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy. It’s a lived-in performance, certainly well-considered in every choice and motion.

However, Platt has put so much effort into these tics and choices – his shaking hands, his withered hunch, his stuttering phrases and apologies – that he forgets to ever just act. He’s become so accustomed to playing for the back row, he forgot that the camera is a whole different medium, creating an Uncanny Valley version of a human being instead of just a human being. It’s ironic, because his subtler choices, like a casual look at Dever’s Zoe whilst singing about “the girl who would never notice us” do far more character work than any of his over-the-top mannerisms. Platt’s voice carries the movie, and I understand his appeal in the role, but when you can’t tell if a role is helping or hurting the film at large, it’s time to reconsider.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of Platt, we do have to discuss his age. In theory, a 27-year-old playing an 18-year-old isn’t the biggest deal in the world. Grease allows us to suspend our disbelief, as did Glee. The problem with Platt’s performance here, beyond taking away the childlike innocence of his central crime, is twofold. First, every other actor in the film seems age-appropriate, unfortunately making Platt look far older than he actually is, and making his presence around these children that much more terrifying. When he shares a kiss with Kaitlyn Dever, who is only two years younger in reality, it looks more like the 2011 film Trust than a sweet high school romance.

The second is the makeup work. In a twisted sense of irony, the makeup designed to make Platt look younger instead makes him seem even older. It highlights the crow’s feet under his eyes, and at times makes him seem the same age as the 47-year-old Adams. I cannot overstate the laugh I had during an emotional scene featuring Platt sitting on a park bench where he looks conservatively 50. Like I said, normally age discrepancies like this aren’t dealbreakers in films. But so much effort was put into hiding this detail, the fact it backfired so heavily must be taken into account.

However, as negative as I have been on the story thus far, I must admit that, as a whole, I found myself profoundly moved during several moments of the film. The credit for this must be given to the fact that everyone not named Levenson involved with this film – the director, the crew, the actors, even Platt himself – try so hard to make the story, and the emotions involved, work. Stephen Chbosky is a remarkable director, having captured teen angst and depression so poignantly before in both Wonder and his 2012 adaptation of his novel The Perks of Being A Wallflower (a better version of this story, mind you). He may as well earn the title “The Teen Whisperer.” Whenever the script leans into heavy-handedness, Chbosky’s touch remains light and playful. He has the keen ability to capture grief in these truly moving ways – when the Murphy family, so stoic in the face of their tragedy, manages to open up to each other for the first time, it is a powerful display. He decorates his sets with little touches and details that feel so lived in, from his shocking recreation of a high school gymnasium and energy to the presence of the Illustrated Classics series on a character’s bookshelf. They are little touches that bring this story to life in ways the script just cannot.

And in Chbosky’s greatest choice, he stages all of the songs (all performed live on set) as expressions of the character’s inner monologue. This seems like an obvious statement – all musical numbers are extensions of the character’s inner monologue. But what Chbosky does here – subtly, without ever tipping his hand – is use that inner monologue as a way of communication. While Evan sings these beautifully performed ballads expressing his inner fears and desires, other characters around him act as though he is not responding, simply staring into space or hiding in a corner. It shows the inner turmoil and struggle within Evan’s mind (the same anxiety and fears that drive him to his central lie) while simultaneously showing the withdrawn nature of the character. It’s brilliant.

Oh, and while we’re talking about the musical numbers, let’s talk about Pasek and Paul’s score. As angry as I felt during the spoken moments of the film, the musical numbers wholeheartedly make you understand why this show was such a hit. It could have been a great concept album – the music is catchy, the lyrics smart and poignant, and beyond. The songs also imply that at least Pasek and Paul – and perhaps Chbosky – understand that Evan’s a prick, even if Platt and Levenson do not. So much effort and intelligence are put into making this film work, and when they actually succeed in moving you in ways you didn’t expect, that cannot be ignored.

Both outside of and including Platt, most of the ensemble is pretty great. A surprising standout is Julianne Moore. It’s not surprising that Moore is great in the film – she’s an artist who always brings her A-game. What is surprising is how minimal and understated her performance is here, filled with quiet, affirming emotions. And when she reaches her big solo, she hides her weak singing voice with lots of warmth and a delicately delivered talk-sing. Outside of Moore, I’d say the three big standouts are Dever, Ryan, and Amandla Stenberg. Ryan in particular is a phenomenal actor. He is so good as Connor, whether in capturing his pain during the early scenes or hamming it up during the “Sincerely Me” number (beautifully sung, mind you). The number could have been creepy or gross, but Ryan handles it with enough respect to make it work.

Dever, meanwhile, continues to be one of the greatest performers under the age of 25. She plays a character filled with contradicting emotions – suspicion, frustration, anger, pain, brokenness, and beyond – and she carries all of them. She is the main reason any romance between Zoe and Evan works in any way – she desperately tries to turn a manic pixie dream girl into a three-dimensional figure with her own feelings, emotions, and personality. During the climactic scene where she, inevitably, finds out the truth, she has this emotion on her face that can only be described as “disgust,” and it might be one of the best onscreen looks I’ve ever seen. Oh, and her singing voice – holy sh*t. Stenberg, meanwhile, continues their climb to fame with another standout role as school activist Alana. Stenberg is the most believable actors in the film, and their original song (which they helped write alongside Pasek and Paul) titled “The Anonymous Ones” is one of the few emotionally resonant pieces in the entire film.

However, as strong as these performers may be, there are a few actors I want to discuss as potential hindrances to the film. In particular, one of my biggest sticking points were the Murphys, played by Danny Pino and Amy Adams. I eventually warmed up to Pino’s performance, which overcame a rough start with a few emotionally impactful sequences later in the run. Adams, however, made me come to a realization I’ve never had in her meteoric rise over the last decade: more so than in Hillbilly Elegy, or The Woman In The Window, or Vice, is miscast. I hate to say it, but it’s true. She somehow misses what should have been an easy layup (I was excited to hear she was taking on a musical role as the mother of a deceased child – something I felt she could do in her sleep), and I never believed her performance for a second.

Still, at least she tries, unlike Evan’s “family friend” Nik Dodani. Dodani is a scourge on this film, hamming it up every single time he’s onscreen and delivering clunky, problematic line after clunky, problematic line. I’ve since learned the role was rewritten specifically for him, and to that I say: why? I hated every moment this kid was onscreen, hated every inch of his smug, dumb face, and in a film full of problematic details, characters, and choices, this one somehow took the cake.

Look, I’m not going to pretend that Dear Evan Hansen is a masterpiece by any means. I’m not entirely sure I liked it. This story is so haphazard, and at times dangerous, I’m not sure I would even use the term “recommendation.” But here’s what I know: this is a smartly directed film, filled with competent actors, all doing their best to tell an emotional, important story. I was frustrated at times, and disgusted at others, but overall, I found myself moved. If someone as cynical as me can feel moved, maybe this film will, weirdly, have an impact on some forlorn teenager in need of its message (or what I assume is its message). It took way too much effort to do so, but Evan Hansen scrapes by in my book.

B

Dear Evan Hansen will be released in theaters starting September 24th

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