‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is a Flawed, Yet Riveting Adaptation of a Beloved Musical

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I would like to start off my review of Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation of the acclaimed stage musical Dear Evan Hansen by stating that there’s no possible way I can be objective about this film. I have so much emotionally invested in this property, I was going to love this film whether or not it was terrible or extraordinary. I can confirm it is neither, and I did absolutely love it. It is a very straightforward, workmanlike adaptation of this musical, with some questionable directing choices, and yet, as was the case on Broadway, it’s the performances that make this story come to life, and also like on Broadway, Dear Evan Hansen had me tearing up at about the ten minute mark, and I kind of didn’t stop crying for roughly the entire duration.

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school senior with an almost crippling form of depression and social anxiety. He starts each day with a cocktail of prescriptions and predetermined notions about himself, heightened by the hyperactivity of social media and the inevitable judgement and despair that comes with being a human being in the times we’re living in. Evan’s therapist tasks him with writing self-affirming letters to himself, very generic ‘here’s why today’s going to be a good day!’ type stuff. His mother Heidi (Julianne Moore) is very worried about him, but is constantly working and can’t spend as much time with him as she’d like.

On the first day of Evan’s senior year, one of his letters winds up in the hands of Connor (Colton Ryan), a student battling his own demons, more importantly a stranger to Evan, and everyone else. Evan has a crush on his sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) and Evan is panicked because this letter mentions her, and Connor could use it to make Evan’s life more miserable. However, a few days later, Evan is called into the principal’s office by Connor’s parents Cynthia and Larry (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), who tell him Connor has taken his own life, and they mistook his letter for their son’s suicide note.

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Evan tries to tell them the truth, “your son didn’t write this,” but they can’t accept it. This leads to a lie that snowballs out of control, as Evan keeps lying to these people, bringing them comfort in the wake of an unspeakable loss, but also giving Evan a place where he feels he belongs, and lets him come out of his shell, even though it’s all predicated on this horrific deceit that is waiting to destroy everyone.

Part of the reason I can’t really be objective about Dear Evan Hansen is because it’s literally the first Broadway show I’ve seen. I’m an avid fan of musical theatre, I’ve seen a million touring productions of plays, musicals, you name it. But on Memorial Day weekend in 2017, I took a bus to New York from Pittsburgh, I was on the road for ten-plus hours surrounded by stinky older people. Once we finally got to the hotel in New York, I was tired and beaten down, but as I sat down in my second-row orchestra seat, I was brought back to life by Dear Evan Hansen in a way only the most transcendent theatre can accomplish. I loved the innovative staging, the emotional complexity of it, the moral gray-area-ness of it all, the somewhat twisted sense of humor, and especially the performances.

Playbill

It immediately became one of my favorite stage musicals I’ve ever witnessed, and I also became a lifelong Ben Platt fan that night. His performance onstage is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen anyone give anywhere. The fact that Platt went onstage eight times a week and performed open heart surgery on himself like that is something I still find positively baffling to this day. I also will forever cherish the moments I spent at the show’s stage door where I met Platt and his co-stars, all of whom were giving positively extraordinary performances, and not only that, were kind, lovely people who made the time to interact with everyone at this impossibly crowded stage door. This incredible show, which spoke to my inner teenager, but also the person I’ve become as an adult, and kind of healed both versions of myself was made by a group of people who were kind, lovely, generous souls. I’ll always remember that. I have the signed Dear Evan Hansen playbill framed on my bedroom wall, and I often look over at it when I’m having a bad day and it still makes me smile.

So, yeah, I can’t really be objective about this property. But I will tell you I’ve been following the production of this film since the minute it was announced, and I’ve been equally excited and terrified for it. I was thrilled to hear Benj Pasek and Justin Paul would be writing new music for it, and then I started panicking about what songs might be cut. Stephen Chbosky, who directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, seemed like the right choice initially, as Wallflower shares a lot thematically with Dear Evan Hansen. And I was positively thrilled to hear Ben Platt would be reprising his Tony/Emmy/Grammy winning role. The feature film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen is an interesting case for me, where the issues with the film’s end product are so obvious, and its flaws are so glaring, and yet at the end of the day I kind of don’t care about any of them. I’m still going to rewatch and love this film for a long time.

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The internet has (somewhat fairly but mostly unfairly) ridiculed Ben Platt for reprising the role of a high-schooler when he’s clearly older than high school age. And he’s never the problem with Dear Evan Hansen. He’s as fantastic in this film as he was on the stage, and he’s giving an entirely different kind of performance. He’s more subdued, more reserved and somehow more tortured than stage Evan. He’s giving a wonderfully internal performance that really bursts to thrilling life whenever he starts to sing. Platt makes it easy to sympathize with this character who’s doing this awful thing, you want to see him emerge on the other side of this, and you want him to be okay. And I’m still convinced Platt is the only person who could have done this justice on film. Having seen a few others perform it, nobody holds a candle to Platt’s masterclass performance.

Does Platt look too old to be roaming the halls of a high school? Yes. Honestly, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why Platt agreed to grow his hair out for this, I don’t know why he agreed to the occasionally distracting amount of makeup he’s wearing, and why these problems weren’t spotted and fixed immediately. Because they could have been. Platt recently starred in Ryan Murphy’s The Politician, which was filmed in late 2018/early 2019 (a year and a half-ish before DEH) where he convincingly played a high school student, and he basically looked exactly like stage Evan Hansen, with the short hair and the piercing eyes. You don’t age that much in between ages 25 and 27. And yet, in certain scenes, Platt looks like a divorcee in his late 30s waiting for his Match.com date in the lobby of a Chili’s, and at other points he looks like a literal child. I don’t yet know how to make sense of how dirty the hair and makeup people did Platt. However, we can use this to start the list of reasons why I’m mad at Stephen Chbosky.

Another reason I’m annoyed with Chbosky is because this film is almost frustratingly earnest and sentimental. The show has a biting sense of humor about itself, about social media, and about these characters and the sometimes absurd choices they make. The film tones down the character of Jared, Evan’s only friend, who would always have a snarky quip that would make Evan’s situation more uncomfortable. There’s a lot less Jared in this film, which is unfortunate since Atypical’s Nik Dodani could not be a better Jared. He kind of fades into the background after the film’s first act, which is regrettable.

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I’d gone into this hearing how underutilized Amy Adams and Julianne Moore were in this film. I would kind of agree and disagree with this. First, we kick off the film by cutting out the opening duet between the two mothers and jumping straight into Platt’s signature number Waving Through a Window, about 30 seconds into the runtime. Adams, a proven singer, should have more to sing here, however she’s giving the 150% always given by Adams, and she’s given a lot of room to shine, even though she’s not singing very much. On the other hand, it really feels like Moore isn’t given a lot of screen time for the majority of the film, and then she takes center stage in act 3, absolutely nailing her big number, which to be fair, is more spoke-sung than belted, but Moore has reduced you to a helpless puddle of tears by that point, you’ll barely even notice.

Tangent: there’s a terrific song in the deluxe version of the Dear Evan Hansen Broadway cast recording called In the Bedroom Down the Hall, where the two mothers sing about how joyful and infuriating it is to be a parent, the constant anxiety of wondering if you’re doing right by your child, and the sadness of never really knowing if you are, and this song is incredibly powerful and would have fit right into this movie, and part of me (reference) wonders if this song was ever considered for the film. Because, even though Moore is clearly not a singer, you leave this movie kind of wishing you’d heard her sing more.

Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever is pretty outstanding as Zoe, mostly because I had no idea she could sing. She’s giving a lot emotionally to this performance, but she’s also nailing all the vocals. She doesn’t feel out of place next to Platt’s insane vibrato, and that’s a massive compliment. If I had a criticism, I would say she’s kind of singing these songs in a very similar way Broadway’s Laura Dreyfus did, and she’s not really trying to make these songs her own as much as she could, but it’s a nitpick.

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Amandla Stenberg is also pretty terrific as Alana, who has undergone character rehab in between productions. On stage, Alana is the gratingly cheerful overachiever who everyone finds annoying, but nobody really stops to ask her why she’s like this. Movie Alana is gobbling antidepressants and is desperate to find where she belongs in the world, and shares a lot more in common with Evan. She also gets a big song here! And it’s fine. Stenberg does a very nice job with her big number, but it’s replacing an existing song in the score (Disappear), which is undoubtedly a stronger piece.

Colton Ryan, who understudied Evan, Jared and Connor on Broadway, is giving a performance that totally justifies the decision to bring him from stage to screen. He’s giving a beautifully sensitive and nuanced performance, and unfortunately we don’t really see him enough. The show also gives the Connor actor a lot more to do, as he’ll periodically show up in ghost form. Movie Connor is a lot more of an gloomy presence that still lingers over the entire film in a powerful way, I just wish he had more to do.

The problems with this adaptation fully lie behind the camera, as Chbosky is clearly not comfortable directing musical numbers. Songs that should feel awkward onscreen (Platt’s big monologue-y songs) feel totally organic and natural, and others feel lazily slapped together, and weirdly edited. I’m happy to say You Will Be Found remains a powerful tearjerker, but some of the editing in this sequence doesn’t really make sense. I can’t think of a director off hand who would have been the obvious choice to direct this, and this brings me to my next point.

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We really should just be filming every single Broadway musical from now on. After last week’s Apple TV+ pro-shot of Come From Away, (not to mention Hamilton on Disney+), which captures what a film could not, I can’t help but wish we could have done the same for Dear Evan Hansen. This film translates the emotion of the stage musical to screen quite well, but I could understand why some will be left scratching their heads, wondering what all the fuss was about. And in my opinion, a lot of the misdirected online vitriol surrounding this film may be proving the text’s point. And if Platt and co. were filmed back in 2017, that discourse wouldn’t be happening in the first place.

In the end, Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen is a riveting, yet flawed adaptation that captures so much about what made the stage musical so special for me, and does just enough right that I’m willing to overlook most of its shortcomings. It might miss the transcendent highs of the stage musical, but sections of it come awfully close to nailing it. It’s still the same emotionally exhausting, devastating performance as it was onstage, and that is almost fully dependent on the performances, of which there is not a weak link in the bunch. Am I disappointed with this adaptation? Not really, I wasn’t expecting it to translate perfectly. And the Dear Evan Hansen film is still one I’ll continue to watch and love (and defend) for a long time. The source material here is too strong to be undone by shoddy direction.

If you liked Dear Evan Hansen on stage, I see no glaring reason why you wouldn’t like this movie. And if you are a human being with a beating heart in your chest, you will find something in this film to resonate with emotionally, and if you don’t, you’re a true monster. Dear Evan Hansen’s profound, beautiful, enormously powerful message is very much intact, and it’s something we all need to hear right now.

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