“Dear Evan Hansen, today’s going to be an amazing day and here’s why…”
Before I start talking about Dear Even Hansen, let me just address the elephant on the screen. Yes, despite originating the title character on Broadway to great acclaim, Ben Platt is now noticeably too old to pass for 17 years of age. Plenty of Platt stans (including those associated with the movie) have cited Grease as the prime example of a high school-driven film with actors who very obviously didn’t look like high schoolers. The difference? EVERYBODY in Grease looks like they haven’t seen the inside of a high school in at least a decade, whereas in Dear Evan Hansen, Platt finds himself surrounded by young actors who naturally look like they haven’t hit graduation yet, causing all the tactics used to make him appear more youthful come off as desperate and obvious. The actor successfully (if narrowly) pulled off a high schooler role in the first season of the criminally underrated series The Politician before his character ran for office in the New York senate the following year. But time is a funny thing in the film/TV world. The camera sees everything, it captures the truth of what’s in front of it. And judging by the small bags under Evan’s eyes, director Stephen Chbosky’s lens wasn’t fooled one bit.
Evan Hansen (Platt) is about to start his senior year of high school, although he doesn’t feel quite so ready. His loving mom Heidi (Julianne Moore) is an overworked nurse and his bouts with anxiety and depression have gotten worse. After a letter Evan wrote to himself as an assignment from his therapist ends up in the possession of another student named Connor (Colton Ryan) who soon after takes his own life, Evan’s world is turned upside down when the latter’s parents Cynthia (Amy Adams), Larry (Danny Pino) and younger sister Zoey (Kaitlyn Dever) assume that the two boys were friends.
I’m not going to spend too much time trying to figure out how this piece played on the Broadway stage. I’m sure plenty of theater buffs are already doing that. As a movie musical, however, Dear Evan Hansen mainly doesn’t work, showing a few glaring problems that extend beyond the ego-filled and sentimentality-driven casting of its lead. While the movie opens with promise thanks to the scene-setting “Waving Through a Window,” too much time and plot occurs before the next song comes up, making us almost forget we’re watching a musical in the first place. Should anyone actually forget, the bizarrely rousing “Sincerely Me” will remind them as it sees Connor and Evan, two devastatingly tragic characters, do a song and dance straight out of vaudeville. I appreciate the artistic curiosity of two opposite tones being played against each other. I only wish it would have worked. At least it isn’t as misguided as the unwelcome “Words Fail,” a wholly forgettable diddy that interrupts one of the movie’s most crucial scenes and robs a couple of characters from the emotional moments they deserve. Still, when a song hits, it cannot be dismissed. The is true for “Requiem,” which touches on the different shades of grief, while the inspiring “The Anonymous Ones” is perhaps the best representation of the movie’s core theme. For his part, Chbosky makes both those numbers and other key scenes work thanks to editing and small visual touches, both of which give Dear Evan Hansen a kind of intimacy it never could have enjoyed on the stage.
A lot has been made about the act Evan performs early on in the movie, the lie that he and Connor were close friends, which he continues to let grow throughout the course of the film. After meeting Connor’s parents, upon which time he learns of the suicide, the pair present Evan with the letter he wrote to himself, insisting that he should be the one to have what they believe to be their son’s last words. It’s a key moment not just for the plot, but for Evan as well, finding himself faced with kind of crucial choice that separates man from boy. Is his decision to let them believe the lie based on cowardice or empathy? Evan is damaged, sure. His past experiences, whatever they may be, have left him fractured to the point where certain situations are legitimate struggles that he does indeed try to overcome. But does a person’s mental fragility preclude both common sense, and to a greater extent, sheer humanity? Dear Evan Hansen seems to think so. Yet Evan’s misguided choice leads to some of the most genuine parts of the entire experience. Cynthia, Larry and Zoe are written as very realistic as is the sadness and regret they show towards Connor’s death. As a unit, the trio proves so subtly compelling and utterly heartbreaking due to the pain they share, that Evan suddenly becomes the least interesting person in the room. It’s difficult to try and capture the world people inhabit after a loved one has gone; the unanswered questions, the unresolved feelings. Still, it’s the one are that manages to emerge as the most authentic aspect of an otherwise flawed movie.
As much as Platt has been lauded for his turn as Evan on stage, his transition to film feels a bit rough. Maybe it’s due to the elements of the story which had to be altered or forgone in its move to the screen, but there’s very little openness from the actor towards his character that doesn’t venture much beyond the surface. Platt unsurprisingly nails the film’s music, but his inability to make Evan exist as his own fleshed out person, or give him any purpose beyond reacting to the far more interesting collection of people around him threatens to torpedo the movie on its own.
It’s the collection of actors surrounding Platt which help make up for much of his and the film’s numerous shortcomings. Moore and Adams succeed at crafting two different but honest portraits of what it means to be a mother in this day and age, while Dever is truly the movie’s heartbeat, beautifully delving into her character’s pain. Pino delivers the film’s most emotional moment despite having a somewhat underwritten role, Ryan and Nik Dodani both nail characters which could have easily turned into stereotypes and Amandla Stenberg is positively luminous and raw, emerging as Dear Evan Hansen’s true secret weapon.
Maybe Evan belongs on the stage. At least there the buoyancy and poetry of those musical numbers that do work could be free to bounce onto the audience and distract them from the devastating choices made by this complicated protagonist. Every year when September rolls around, I get int the mood to watch Bad Ronald, that 1970s TV movie about a mentally disturbed teen played by Scott Jacoby who is sheltered by his mother (Kim Hunter) in a large house. When Ronald’s mother dies in surgery, the house is put up for sale and a new family moves in unaware that Ronald is still there lurking behind the walls via a secret passageway. The film is such an odd curio whose reputation has only grown over time, even if most modern audiences still subject the Ronald character to the same kind of public rejection his mother was trying to protect him from. At the heart of its weirdness however, Bad Ronald managed actual truth and tragedy without having to resort to any grandstanding whatsoever. Despite good intentions and the elements of the film which do shine through, Dear Evan Hansen largely does not.