Dear Evan Hansen
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Screenplay by Steven Levenson, based on “Dear Evan Hansen” by Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul
Starring Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams
Going into Stephen Chbosky’s “Dear Evan Hansen,” two emotions swirled about; the first was, “I’m aware of the controversy surrounding the casting,” and second, “the movie wasn’t well-received at TIFF, am I going to like this?”
Walking out of the theater, “conflicted” could be best used to describe my initial reaction. I was set to offer a negative review of the film. Yet, something inside me sparked to the film. While I’m not entirely optimistic about the film, Chbosky’s steady direction and understanding of the material caused me to rethink my position.
Chbosky delivered the excellent “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” in 2012. Both films offer similarities in characters and stories. The difference with “Dear Evan Hansen” is that it is focused on challenges we all face in fitting into our own skin, that social anxiety that forms our inner monolog and overtakes our thoughts. We want to be liked; we want to be desired. Part of that effort falls on us to work at forming relationships and building self-esteem. True too, families are broken and, sometimes, mended.
Adapted from the stage play of the same name by Steven Levenson with the stage play written by Levenson, Benj Pacek and, Justin Paul, Ben Platt reprises the eponymous Evan Hansen, a high school teenager who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the crowd. Nursing a broken forearm from an accident over the summer, Evan seeks to remain unobtrusive, laying out his thoughts on a computer in the form of a letter to himself, a product of his therapist recommending that he reinforce his self-esteem through letters to himself.
As it happens, Evan is completing his “homework” on a school computer when he accidentally prints the letter out. Who should find it but the equally troubled Connor Murphy, played by Colton Ryan. I don’t mind saying this, but I felt a slight connection between the two that would have represented more than friends, signaled through Connor’s writing of his name on Evan’s cast in big letters, “C-O-N-N-O-R.” Intended to drive attention to Evan’s cast, it also symbolized a cry for help, only to later learn, somewhat awkwardly, that Connor had committed suicide.
Not quite knowing how to process his emotions over the loss of someone he didn’t even know, Evan is assimilated into the Murphy home, where the film’s awkwardness continued. Amy Adams plays Cynthia Murphy, and Danny Pino plays Larry Mora, Connor and Zoe’s stepdad. Arizona-native Kaitlyn Dever plays Zoe. The script introduces the concept of the “haves and have-nots,” which is in the back of our minds and doesn’t play out until the third act. Adams’ performance is admirable as she tries to piece together the broken pieces of her son’s life; Pino plays the supportive husband, and there’s a moment in the film where Larry and Evan are discussing baseball as a way of connecting fathers and sons, a moment where Chbosky truly cemented our understanding of what the movie was saying.
Dever’s performance evolved the most beyond Platt’s. If “Dear Evan Hansen” weren’t a musical, her actorly performance would have stood out even more – her growth and maturity were outstanding.
Platt, who originated the stage play role, looks comfortable in his own skin in the film, yet there was an awkwardness that didn’t translate through the screen story; an essence of the character, which when on the stage would have been more limited whereas the cinematic stage allowed the character to breathe in the screenplay. There is a strength in Evan’s constant maneuverings to make peace with the eventual fallout breaking into song as a therapeutic way to convey his feelings. Those performances define Evan Hansen but also feel slightly out of place.
Nik Dodoni plays Jared Kalwani, Evan’s only friend and one smart cookie. He’s a smart aleck who knows he’s one, and he doesn’t mind laying on his philosophy on Evan. Julianne Moore plays Evan’s mom, Heidi. The character isn’t present for a large portion of the story; however, this is intentional. Moore reminded me of the power behind her voice and her eyes when she confronts a situation Evan created. However, the beat that follows leads to more awkwardness in the script that it cannot compensate.
Evan’s journey leads him to form other friendships, namely Amandla Stenberg’s Alana. The mechanics of the story pander to its intended social messaging, which is essential, but it isn’t the crux of the story. Along Evan’s journey, though, Chbosky and cinematographer Brandon Trost (“The FP,” “The Interview,” “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”) take advantage of the natural light surrounding Evan, a stark contrast to the goings-on in the story and Evan’s life. Every location or set was brightly lit even during some of the more emotional moments signaling hope for the characters surrounding Evan, except for the one place where his self-reflection comes crashing down. Trost’s cinematography highlights “Dear Evan Hansen,” and Chbosky contrasts himself with “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which was primarily shot at night.
There’s a moment where the story crests, signaling an impending ending that felt out of place; it felt like a resolution. The film had more to say, which isn’t bad, but the structure doesn’t support or warrant it.
“Dear Evan Hansen” works through its musical numbers, its strong casting, and the message of hope that it leaves us with. It also has the unenviable task of sitting in a sea of musicals in 2021, and without having seen Spielberg’s reimagined “West Side Story,” coming in December, it doesn’t compare to “In the Heights” or even surprisingly, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.”
On reflection, it still doesn’t sit well. It does offer hope. Time might improve my reaction to the film, for it does have the wisdom to teach us, even if that wisdom is awkwardly flawed.
PG-13, 137 minutes, Universal Pictures