Even on Film, Dear Evan Hansen Can’t Fix the Musical’s Main Problem
BY RICHARD LAWSON SEPTEMBER 10, 2021
Dear Evan Hansen, the smash-hit, Tony winning 2015 musical, was, depending on your outlook, a poignant depiction of the mental health perils of high school, or an unrelentingly cynical bit of smarm about someone doing a terrible thing and becoming a hero for it. The story—about a troubled, lonely teen who, seeking human connection, fakes a past friendship with a classmate who has died by suicide—has vast potential for darkness. And yet the Broadway (and, previously, off-Broadway) production instead pointed itself squarely at the broad, bludgeoning uplift endemic to its day.
The show made a star of its lead, Ben Platt, and was vaunted into the musical canon as a piece of theater that keenly spoke, in all its social-media plotting, to the present tense. There was probably always going to be a movie, and thus there is, which premiered here at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday. Would the film version solve the problems of the stage show, or only further exacerbate them?
As directed by Stephen Chbosky—a novelist turned filmmaker who covered similar territory in the film adaptation of his own book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower—the film is an improvement in some areas, while still incapable of escaping the rot at the property’s core. The hope, no doubt, was that in the intimate framing of a movie, the careful nuance and texture so crucially lacking in the play could be more easily sussed out—or newly created. Gone would be the big gestures of Broadway, replaced by more exacting closeup, by true and complicated character.
Stretches of the movie do bear out that theory. Evan, a nervous wreck with a cast on his arm from a mysterious accident over the summer, does indeed seem more palpably hemmed in by his cramped high school environs than he did under the towering height of a midtown proscenium arch. The quotidian plainness of teenage life, its kitchen conversations and hallway tensions, register more persuasively.
And, it perhaps must be said, Hollywood clout has drawn in a host of respectable performers to accompany Platt: Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Danny Pino, Amy Adams, and Julianne Moore. They are not better than the people who played their roles on Broadway, but they do lend the picture some not unwelcome glow.
Platt is the only original cast member to reprise his role for the film, a fact that has sent some eyes rolling in part because Platt’s invaluable Broadway co-star Rachel Bay Jones also won a Tony for her troubles, yet has been swapped out for the Oscar-winning Moore. It doesn’t seem fair. Platt is also quite visibly in his late 20s, a far cry from the shivering, barely adolescent pipsqueak Evan is supposed to be. Chbosky and the hair, makeup, and lighting teams can’t do much to cover up that fact, rendering the film’s central character as an interloper oddity from some other-world. Evan Hansen is himself an interloper in his way, but the off-ness of Platt’s presence in the film way overstates the case.
The real trouble of Platt’s performance, though, is that he doesn’t dial down for the camera. He maintains nearly all of his stage work’s highly articulated tics—Evan’s hunched gait and wiggling hands, his stammered speech patterns—which played fine from many yards back in a theater, but are too mannered on film. He sticks out among his more screen-seasoned cast mates, as if his Broadway performance was simply video captured and, through CGI magic, bizarrely aged up and digitally inserted into everyone else’s littler, humbler movie.
When Platt sings, much of that strangeness temporarily evaporates. His powerful bari-tenor, sometimes smooth and lush, other times cracking into a pleasing Joni Mitchell plaint, communicates Evan’s emotional state much more cogently than does his acting. Dever and Stenberg are also in beautiful voice, revealing extra talents many of us didn’t know they had. As Connor, the dead boy who haunts the film, up-and-coming stage actor Colton Ryan offers a compelling argument for bigger stardom, though he also too easily reads as an adult. Pino and Adams (who play Connor’s parents) and Moore (as Evan’s mom, Heidi) all enjoy nice musical moments, though Jones’s raspy belt is sorely missed during Heidi’s 11 o’clock number.
Where Dever, Pino, Adams, and Moore really do their heaviest lifting is in trying to extract thematic value out of Dear Evan Hansen’s tortured plot, which concerns a vile cruelty that frames Evan as more of a Thomas Ripley figure than just your average depressed kid who gets in over his head. A tragic misunderstanding leads Connor’s family to think that he and Evan were the best of friends, a mistruth that Evan at first perpetuates tentatively and then wholeheartedly. Especially as it brings Connor’s sister Zoe (played by Dever) ever closer. Evan has long had a crush on Zoe, who warms to Evan as he spins tales about how much Connor—a difficult, violent presence in her life—secretly loved his sister and yearned to be a better brother.
This dawning relationship, which the film frames as sweet and romantic (albeit briefly), brings up some thorny and pertinent questions of consent. Evan’s is a terrible violation, and yet the stage show and now the movie do little to properly contextualize that. Still, Dever finds admirable shading within the movie’s insistence that Zoe not be too mad at Evan when all is revealed. She’s such an intuitive, resourceful actor that she can’t help but wrestle some redemption out of this imbalanced material. Adams also manages a complex kind of desolation and grownup empathy, a weary and heartbroken smile in her final scene illustrating an ocean of conflicted feeling.
Evan Hansen need not be a lovable, nor even likable, character. But as the wet-eyed center of this bulldozer of a show, so engineered as an emotional wringer that would sell lots of original cast recordings (and now soundtracks), he is inevitably valorized, let to stroll off into the golden sun with the audience applauding after him, while a whole family is still devastated. This is a problem of tone, really, and of the ear-wormy, artisanal sugar of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music, which dutifully gives the lead soaring, poptimistic ballads he doesn’t deserve.
The better version of Dear Evan Hansen would use its grim story as the means to explore the false cheer and heavily synthetic inspiration content of so much contemporary online life. (In a public expression of his faux grief, Evan does, of course, go viral.) It would see the galling emptiness of the sentiment expressed in the musical’s defining song, “You Will Be Found,” a placating promise that everyone in dire mental crisis need only lie in wait for their savior to emerge from somewhere. It would critique the culture that not only made Evan Hansen, but that made Dear Evan Hansen, too.
The film had the opportunity to really edit and rethink those matters. But it only does so here and there, in little bits, mostly by further expanding on Evan’s mental health and that, vaguely, of his peers. (Stenberg’s Type A classmate, Alana, gets a new song about just that.) As was true of the stage production, the Dear Evan Hansen film wants to have it both ways, to see the awful lie at the center of Evan’s message of hope and to still have it play as hopeful. In an ideal world, the parents or guardians of the many young people who will no doubt thrill to this occasionally winning and often crassly manipulative film would have a productive chat with their charges afterward, explaining that not everything is as easy and forgivable as it is on stage—or, now, in the movies.