Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 23rd, 2021
Dear Evan Hansen (Stephen Chbosky, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars.
The stage musical Dear Evan Hansen premiered in New York in 2016 to critical and financial success, and went on to win many awards. It tells the story of one Evan Hansen (fancy that), a high-school senior who suffers from social anxiety, for which he takes multiple medications. He lives with his single mom (his dad decamped long ago) and writes occasional letters to himself, at the direction of his therapist, with the goal to focus on the good of the past, present, and future. One day, Connor, an equally lonely teen—though a more violent one—confiscates one of Evan’s letters, and when Connor later kills himself, that letter is the only thing found on him. Connor’s parents assume it is a suicide note written to his best friend (about whom they knew nothing), and seek Evan out. One thing leads to another, and before long Evan finds himself doing and saying things, as well as singing them, that he never would have before. It’s all fine until someone (or in this case, many someones) gets hurt.
Ben Platt (Pitch Perfect) originated the role on Broadway and here reprises the lead. Born in 1993, he is perhaps a little old to play the part now, though there is a storied tradition of actors way beyond high-school-age incarnating would-be younger versions of themselves, so who’s to judge? Plus, he is hardly the only ‘90s child in the cast (most, if not all, of the ostensible teenagers are in their twenties). Still, something can happen to the body and face as one approaches 30, and in certain light in certain scenes, Platt, silly hair and all, just doesn’t cut it. That, however, is not the real issue here. He’s a fine performer, with a pleasant voice, and one can understand why the producers (one of whom happens to be his father) would think it best not to spoil the magic and keep him on. If you can stomach Grease (and I very much can, even if Olivia Newton-John was 30 and Stockard Channing 34), then what’s the big deal?
No, the problem is both conceptual and artistic. I am in no position to judge the adaptation from stage to screen, as I have not seen the source material. I came into this with a very clean slate, not even aware of the most basic aspects of the plot (though I had heard the advance grumblings about Platt’s advancing age). So I was a little shocked by the superficial treatment the movie initially seems to give important topics such as anxiety, depression, and suicide. That reaction was mitigated as the film wore on, for there are deeper threads within; it would be wrong to claim that no one tried to address serious issues and give them an accessible spin. It’s just that the format of a musical usually requires that the most emotional moments be sung: speech conveys story, while song conveys sentiment. That is simultaneously beautiful and reductive, for the conventions of melody, lyrics, and the relationship of one to the other cannot always serve the needs imposed on them, at least not in this movie. So many of the tunes here are not all that great, awards notwithstanding.
In fact, many of them are too bland to be much of anything, though not for lack of trying from the very talented ensemble. They include, beyond Platt, Amy Adams (Arrival), Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Nik Dodani (Mark, Mary & Some Other People), Julianne Moore (Bel Canto) and Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give). They sing their hearts out, even through the narratively awkward moments that no amount of mise-en-scène can save. Director Stephen Chbosky, in previous movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder, has shown a fine sense of balance between lightness of touch and gravity of subject, but in Dear Evan Hansen he is outdone by the failings of the script, crafted by the same folks who wrote the play. Will fans of the original like this? I have no idea. Is it terrible? Not at all. But it is very middling, indeed.