Film Review – Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen (2021) is the film adaptation of the popular, Tony Award winning stage musical of the same name. The awards it garnered included both Best Actor as well as Best Musical. However, something went drastically wrong in the translation from Broadway to the silver screen. Directed by Stephen Chbosky and written by Steven Levenson (with music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), this is an underwhelming, emotionally manipulative story. It takes serious themes of social anxiety, mental health, and grief and examines them from a surface level depth. We come away with no better understanding of these topics as we did coming in.
A lot of the buzz surrounding the release involved Ben Platt (who reprises his stage role) and how he did not look age appropriate for the title character. Older actors playing teens has been a long tradition in the movies and often has not been that big of a deal. I don’t think anyone really cares that Michael J. Fox wasn’t really seventeen in Back to the Future (1985) or that the cast of Grease (1978) were old enough to play the teachers instead of the students. But the blatant artificiality in Dear Evan Hansen sticks out like a sore thumb. With his gaunt frame, hunched shoulders, and heavy make-up, Platt clearly looks like a grown man pretending to be a high school senior. The fact that the production tried so hard to mask his age draws our attention to it even more.
But Platt’s age is not nearly the biggest problem – it’s that the character of Evan Hansen doesn’t feel like a living, breathing person. The writing and direction has Platt gesture with heavy ticks and odd movements, speaking in a voice that barely rises above a mumble. Evan doesn’t operate in terms of a natural character arc, but to pull as large of a dramatic response as possible. Evan is an outsider, who suffers from crippling anxiety that he battles with medication. He has a cast over his broken arm with no signatures on it, highlighting his loneliness. At the suggestion of his therapist, Evan writes letters to himself to help lift his spirits. One of these letters falls into the hands of Connor (Colton Ryan) a fellow school mate. When a shocking tragedy happens involving Connor, his parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) come to Evan with his letter in hand, thinking that Connor had written it. They approach Evan in hopes of getting a better understanding of their son and to find closure.
This is where the narrative falls off a cliff. Instead of telling Connor’s parents the truth, Evan lies to them, conjuring up a story where he and Connor had a close friendship. This is one of the many contrivances that pulls the film apart. Evan is dishonest – he will do and say anything to gain some type of connection. He’ll bribe his one friend (Nik Dodani) to help elaborate his ruse. Platt unarguably has an incredible singing voice, and when he reaches his upper register, we can see why his stage performance was so revered. But on screen, his musical scenes only amplify the fact that Evan is operating under false pretenses. During the “For Forever” number, Chbosky’s direction and Anne McCabe’s editing intercuts moments of Evan and Connor hanging out. I suppose this is meant to provide Connor’s family a happy image of him, but it’s an image that never existed.
Are we meant to believe that Evan’s deception is due to his mental health and insecurities? Are we supposed to buy that he continues doing this because of his need for companionship? That doesn’t feel like a reason – it feels like an excuse. The narrative blames Evan’s misdeeds on his anxieties, instead of the fact that he is a selfish person. There’s something exploitative about that. This artificial, thin character study runs up and down many of the other roles. Evan’s burgeoning romance with Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) feels inappropriate and shoehorned. Amy Adams does her best as Connor’s mom, even though her character simply goes through the motions of grief rather than making us believe that she’s living it. Alana (Amandla Stenberg) – the student president at school – is set up to be a moral compass for Evan but betrays him with a decision that is the opposite of her entire character.
If there is anybody that feels like a real human being, it’s Julianne Moore as Evan’s mother, Heidi. Heidi is a hardworking, single mom who works in the medical field. Because of her profession, she often leaves Evan by himself. Heidi tries her best to give Evan a happy life and wants to be involved with him. Moore exudes a balance of warmth and tenderness with an honesty that never sugarcoats what she says. She will call Evan out when he does something wrong and will lend a shoulder to lean on during vulnerable moments. Moore may not have the vocal range that the other performers do, but her sensitivity to the character makes her musical scenes some of the most memorable.
In my review of CODA (2021) I wrote that it “has such a tenderness and compassion for its characters that one can’t help but root for them.” That is what is missing in Dear Evan Hansen. Evan is so unlikeable that it was difficult to stay invested with him. By the time his retribution comes, it’s too little too late. All the scenes of high emotion feel like a put on, trying to find pathos where there isn’t any. We have scene after scene of characters belting their hearts out, trying to overcome their loneliness and depression through sheer force of will. To make sure the point gets across, the music is juxtaposed with images of them looking forlorn or basking in a fleeting moment of happiness. This might work for some viewers, but I was unconvinced – it just all felt so schmaltzy.
My hope is that this version of Dear Evan Hansen will entice viewers to seek out the theater production, where it is probably best suited. Sometimes, what works on stage doesn’t work in front of a camera. In a year that has already given us some great musicals and even more promising ones down the line, this acts as a minor speed bump amongst them.