‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Is An Emotional Roller Coaster That Boldly Reminds Us We Are Not Alone – Review
Musical storytelling on stage and screen alike, has seen a stunning evolution over the past few years, creatively and in audiences. Broadway creatives have opened the door to many innovative decisions in casting, production, music, and more, challenging the musical genre to progress into a whole new wave of musical fanatics. While there’s love for the La La Land’s (2016) and Anna and the Apocalypse’s (2017) of the world, 2021 boasts the theatrical adaptations of beloved modern musicals. But before rival gangs can snap their way to theaters, an anxious teenager in an arm cast and blue shirt is here to remind us that we are not alone.
Adapted from the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, Dear Evan Hansen, follows an overly anxious high school student, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt), who tries to overcome his social anxiety by writing letters to himself as a therapy exercise. But when a troubled classmate, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), takes his own life, a misunderstanding with the letters implies Evan was Murphy’s sole friend. Scared to admit the truth, Evan fabricates stories about his friendship with Connor to mend the pain of the Murphy family, unaware of the emotional roller coaster ahead of him when his fraudulent friendship becomes the face of a social movement. This musical holds a special place in my heart, so when the movie adaptation was announced, I was terrified. Until, Stephen Chbosky signed on as its director.
Chbosky’s debut feature, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), remains one of the most accurate depictions of teenage PTSD in in cinema, balancing lovable characters and difficult subject matter with care. With a story like Dear Evan Hansen, that care is needed. It’s a delicate balance the stage show nails, as the titular character’s actions are often immoral, especially as more is revealed about how Connor treated his family. Without careful attention, Evan can easily become unlikable and the musical can feel like a dumbed down explanation of mental health with catchy songs along the way. Does the movie pull it off? Well, not without some stumbles along the way.
Dear Evan Hansen loses a lot of weight with its characters through altered story beats. I looked back on the movie after it ended and thought, no one deserved anything good or bad that happened to them in this movie. It was a weird thought to have, but I think it all came down to how I felt about Evan Hansen. At a certain point in the movie, it became hard to sympathize with the character due to how he treated people. His actions are the same in the stage show, but he leads with a lot more manipulation that isn’t met with justifying accountability. The lack of accountability made it hard for me to accept the outcomes of the final act.
That’s not to say the performances weren’t great. Even with the apparent age difference, Platt reminds us why he won that Tony. I love the little nuances of the performances, using common physical tics to show anxiety. Kaitlyn Dever is powerful as Connor’s sister, Zoe. She elevates every scene she’s in, whether she’s angsty, charming, or downright heartbreaking. Danny Pino and Amy Adams (Connor’s step-dad and Mom, respectively) give performances that can move souls, and Julianne Moore has ample time to shine as Evan’s mom, Heidi. Everyone across the supporting cast fit into their roles well and were welcome screen presences.
The music is as beautiful as ever, reprising powerful songs from the original Broadway soundtrack and using film techniques to bolster their meaning and power. The “For Forever” sequence is backed by incredible performances from Platt, Adams, Pino, and Dever that made me smile from ear to ear. I was crying when the “You Will Be Found” scene ended, as Chbosky and the team recreated the powerful feelings that fell over me the first time I’d heard that song; a warm hug that made me feel less alone. Evan’s quivering stutter in “Words Fail” and Zoe’s solo in “Requiem” still break my heart. That said, the movie soundtrack is more or less a re-recording of the Broadway album minus a few songs, especially with Platt’s return as Evan Hansen. Both versions of the album become interchangeable, which is a bit disappointing.
This adaptation reminded me a lot of Love, Simon (2017). It’s a story that tackles challenging topics but doesn’t quite escape the heavy-handedness of teen soap operas found on The CW. Still, this movie insists everyone deserves a chance to be seen and that’s a beautiful statement to make. It may not be a perfect adaptation, but it’s a testament to how far we’ve come to tell these types of stories that can help people feel less alone. Even with its flaws, Dear Evan Hansen manages to be a heartfelt story encouraging us all to speak when times are tough, because we are not alone.