Movies

Dear Evan Hansen (2021) Review


A DISHEARTENING TEEN MUSICAL


 

In the age of cinematic storytelling, Hollywood has always turned to other source materials for inspiration. Some have been based on a “true story” or event, while others have taken “loosely” based on certain scenarios (i.e., alternative history). Naturally, the ideas of popular properties from the likes of video games, literary novels, and television have also taken center stage of filmmakers; ripping ideas and story narratives for a movie treatment. Among all of these inspirations, the idea of taking of theatrical stage musicals for a cinematic representation; taking popular and famed staged productions and translating them for a feature film endeavor. This idea has shared a variety of well-known musicals for a “stage to screen” production, with such notable plays like Les Miserable, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Sound of Music, Rent, and several others. Now, Universal Pictures (along with Perfect World Pictures) and director Stephen Chbosky present the latest adapted stage musical for a cinematic movie with the release of Dear Evan Hansen, based on the popular Broadway show and book of the same name. Does this teen “coming of an age” story shine brightly on its new platform or is it a shallow attempt in its deceitful misgivings and execution?

THE STORY


At Westview High School, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a loner teenager with social anxiety issues, trying to make the most of his senior year as he tries to reach out to his fellow classmates, supported by his overworked mother, Heidi (Julianne Moore) in this endeavor. As part of his therapy, Evan is tasked with writing a note of positivity to himself every day, helping him grow more confident from within and not letting his anxiety wash over him, but panic is quickly snapped into reality when his latest entry is accidentally collected by Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a wayward teen who is losing the battle with his emotional issues. After experiencing a harsh encounter with Connor, Evan is shaken, but his world is soon turned upside down when his fellow classmate commits suicide, leaving behind Evan’s note, which Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), believe to be their son’s final words. Shocked by the situation, Evan invents a friendship with Connor to appease Connor’s grieving parents, as well Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who Evan begins to form a connection with. However, Evan soon finds himself in a dangerous situation, watching his lie spiral out of control as a movement begins to recognize Connor, a boy nobody really knew…..including Evan.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Borrowing some of written lines from my review of Blithe Spirit and Cats, I do have to say that I do quite enjoy theatrical stage productions as well. Technically, both are quite similar in projecting storytelling through imagery and characters, but something about theater stage shows is quite alluring…. sometimes magical. The idea of theatrical stage playwrights and Broadway shows definitely fits nicely within that category; drumming up a new cinematic translation from the stage to the silver screen. Of course, as mentioned above, there have been plenty of movies that were based on stage plays throughout the years and some have shared some great spotlight within the cinematic viewing experience. Of course, a lot of the William Shakespeare plays have seen a multitude of film screen adaptation throughout the years, with some of my personal favorites being 1989’s Henry V, 1996’s Hamlet, and 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, but there have been others theatrical stage plays that had some good cinematic treatments like 2004’s Phantom of the Opera, 2012’s Les Miserable, and 2020’s Hamilton (technically a stage recording, but still a somewhat cinematic representation). In the end, while Hollywood will continue to look towards other sources for feature film adaptations, the world of the theatrical stage plays will prove to be continuing resource for inspiration for potential movies on the horizon.

Naturally, this brings me back around to talking about Dear Evan Hansen, a 2021 musical and the adaptation of the original Broadway play of the same name. Working at a bookstore for several years, I remember hearing about the Broadway show named Dear Evan Hansen from my fellow co-workers, especially when the novelization of the book of the same name, which was written by Steven Levenson, started to appear on the bookshelves as well as “best teen” books sections. I remember hearing a lot about the Broadway show after that, with many finding the production to be top-notch and a somewhat “modern-day musical” hit, especially after Dear Evan Hansen was nominated for nine awards at the 71st Tony Awards and walked away with winning six, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best actor in a lead role. Thus, given the success of the Broadway production, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that a film adaptation would one day materialize for a cinematic representation of the theatrical musical. I did remember hearing about the film project a few months ago, with some people talking about it online and generating a “buzz” about the film’s trailers. So, while I didn’t post the trailer for the upcoming film on my blog, the film was on my radar for when it would come out. I did wait a bit after Dear Evan Hansen got released in theaters, especially after hearing a lot of unfavorable reviews about the movie that were generated by both critics and moviegoers. Thus, after a bit, I decided to check out the film to see if the musical was as bad as some were making it out to be. And what did think of it? Well, I have to agree with some of those reviews about the film; finding Dear Evan Hansen to find sincerity and meaningful intent behind the project, but the film adaptation can save itself from several crucial elements of questionable decisions and a messy premise. I definitely get where the film is going with the narrative, but this musical can’t overcome its own problems, which is disappointing.

As a disclaimer note for this review, my thoughts and opinions for Dear Evan Hansen are mostly going to be solely based on the 2021 theatrical film and not so much on the differences made between the original Broadway show nor the book by Levenson….as I’ve not seeing the play nor read the book to compare “apples to apples” sort of speak.

Dear Evan Hansen is directed by Stephen Chbosky, whose previous credible works includes as a screenplay writer for such film adaptation musical like 2005’s Rent and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, while also directing such young adult feature films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder. Thus, given his background in shaping musicals to the silver screen (by ways and means of script handling) and presenting youthful / teen melodrama in feature films, Chbosky seems quite a suitable and likeable choice in adapting a narrative like this. Chbosky approaches Dear Evan Hansen with a sense of sincerity and well-intentions; wanting to preserve the essence of what I assume was the nature of the Broadway show…. without sacrificing much. The end result is a musical that is framed within the classic teen melodrama of a “coming of age” yarn. It definitely works…to a degree and, while the elements get muddy along the way, the morals to be learned / teach are there. In that regard, I think that Chbosky succeeds. In addition, several of themes are vital and relative to today’s current landscape, especially with teens, who are struggling with identity and suffering with anxieties (both internal and external). Thus, despite how everything is handle in the movie, there is a certain type of underlining beauty found in Dear Evan Hansen; a beauty that has its own thorns…. yet still beautiful. The story is sweet and definitely has sincerity in its meaning, which I think Chbosky takes with its sincerity of how he present the film. There are troubles that quick arise with the feature’s mechanics, but I’ll mention those below. Nevertheless, I think that the attempt made by Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen is indeed an important one that deserves at the very least credibility.

Of course, with the movie being a musical, Dear Evan Hansen certainly has a great pedigree within its lyrics and songs that are featured throughout. Perhaps one of the most interesting and best decisions in the original Broadway show is having the musical’s songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo who collaborate together for the musical lyrics for The Greatest Showman and La La Land. Thus, its quite easy to tell that the story’s musical elements are superb, with the lyrics showcasing plenty of heart and sincerity with every word being sung, which gives each song various meanings…..but meaningful none the less. This is carried over into the film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, with many of the songs evoking the right tone and emotion throughout the film. There are plenty of songs that evoke that sentiment beautifully in the movie, with the big crowd song being “You Will Be Found”. Of course, there are songs that are great emphasis in the movie such as “Sincerely, Me”, “Requiem”, and “The Anonymous Ones”, but I felt that “You Will Be Found” is the one song that takes the cake. All that being said, I think the movie’s songs aren’t quite as memorable. Yes, I definitely that the lyrics definitely make the songs themselves, but the songs aren’t that memorable enough to replay them again like the songs from The Greatest Showman or La La Land. However, I know there are those out there who will love the songs and probably will run out to buy the soundtrack. In short, Dear Evan Hansen’s songs are written well (and well-performed in the movie), but I just don’t that musical numbers are my personal favorite of the Pasek / Paul collaboration.

Of its production and its presentation, Dear Evan Hansen meets the industry standards for a musical film like this. That’s not to say that the movie’s presentation is just “average” or “decent”, for it does certainly have enough attention to detail through its background aesthetics and visual appeal to make pleasing to look at and have a sincere gesture within its production quality. It’s just nothing super flashy and amazing to see, but the story (even its Broadway musical presentation) doesn’t demand a dazzling spectacle like The Greatest Showman or the epic grandeur of Les Miserable. So, that’s why I would say that the film meets the industry standard on this front; projecting the classic modern day high school / suburbia lifestyle. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including Brittany Hites (art direction), Lance Totten (set decorations), and Sekinah Brown (costume designs), for their efforts in making Dear Evan Hansen’s the way it looks, which (again) is quite pleasing to look at and definitely right “in-line” with the story’s setting. No harm, no foul….in my opinion. I liked it…from a movie’s background standpoint. The cinematography work by Brandon Trost is also pretty good in the movie and definitely captures a few cinematic moments throughout the feature that slick and creative, especially during the movie’s musical numbers. Lastly, while I did mention the film’s musical songs, the feature’s score, which was composed by Dan Romer is good and definitely plays up some of a lot of the movie’s various scenes….be it quieter character dialogue moments to rousing scenes.

Unfortunately, Dear Evan Hansen gets a lot more wrong than it does get right, with the movie feeling inadequate and conflicted within the justifications of many of its heavy, dark subject material’s representations and overall execution. How so? Well, for starters, the most frustrating aspect of the movie is the actually narrative being told…. finding the character of Evan Hansen to be lying (repeatedly) in the justifications of what happened to Connor Murphy. The deceitful nature of what Evan does throughout the movie is caused by a series of events of telling a single lie. Of course, the lies being told are supposed to be reasoned for Evan’s character arc for the narrative; finding a self-discovery along the way. However, the way of how it is all handled is almost despicable that it’s kind of hard to root for or even find comfort within the actions of what Evan is actually doing. It’s one of those things that really hard to get behind, but, as Evan’s intentions are sincere, which the movie tries painfully hard to portray as, but majority of what he does causes harm to the situation as well as some questionable motives. The same can be said with the character of Alana Beck, who misuses Evan’s situation and tries to gain popularity by doing something quite harmful, which (again) is meant to be helpful, but ends up being detrimental to the entire situation. Of course, the movie tries to justify Beck’s decision with a bit more tenderness, but she comes off as a hated character…..even more so than Evan himself by initial starting the lie that he and Connor are friends. The ideas of truth, lies, and deception are definitely blurred in Dear Evan Hansen and the way that Evan handles it and how he ultimately comes out of it is very conflicted to me. So, I guess my problem with this isn’t the film, but the narrative being told in Dear Evan Hansen.

This, of course, leads to one of the biggest blunders of the story…. Connor Murphy himself. Yes, I do understand the movie is based on the Broadway show, so there are certain limitations that the movie has placed on being based on another media platform. That being said, the film should try to differentiate itself enough to try and shed new light upon such a complexed storytelling, especially with one that tackles the subject matter of anxiety, peer pressure amongst teens, and…perhaps the biggest one…. suicide. Yes, the suicide of Connor Murphy isn’t fully addressed in the movie, which (to me) is incredibly disheartening and almost applauding, especially since the targeted demographic of both the movie and the Broadway show is focused on them and dealing with situations that weigh heavily on today’s youth. My big problem with this is that the character of Connor’s mental health isn’t fully examined enough for us (the viewers) to care about, and nothing is really explored as to “why” he decided to take his own life. To use such a horrific event as almost as a “McGuffin” for Dear Evan Hansen is super shallow and almost just as dishonest as the character of Evan Hansen’s lies. The entire film we’re suppose to feel close and remorse to Connor Murphy’s death, but it feels like we (as the viewers) never really knew him and never got any reasons as to who he really is. Heck, even for awareness in suicide prevention, Dear Evan Hansen glosses over this important detail, which is vital especially in today’s age when teens are falling prey to suicidal thoughts due to peer pressure, anxiety in society, and toxicity on social media. It just seems like quite a missed opportunity and death of Connor Murphy holds little weight in the movie…deserving more than just a narrative cog.

Looking beyond those personal huge points of criticism, Chbosky does struggle to find a proper balance in-between speaking to the narrative being told and the musical numbers that are being showcased. This generates a lot of odd motions throughout the feature, with the narrative sluggishly trying to coney what is going on and Chbosky isn’t quite adept in juggling between the two. This creates numerous pacing issues in the movie, which makes the film’s runtime 137 minutes (two hours and seventeen minutes) feel just that long…. laboriously moving along at a snail’s pace. Yes, the songs do interject a bit more lively tones into the mix, but I don’t think that the musical numbers can’t save this movie from languishing in blandness and within its formulaic nature. Even the film’s screenplay struggles to find a proper balance in storytelling moments, which makes character surface level or bland right from the get-go. Even moments when the songs start are a bit wonky, and I felt that Chbosky needs a better handling on navigate a story such as this. This results in Dear Evan Hansen having difficulty in projecting what it really wants to be, and its premise is messy, with the film adaptation not rising the source material to new heights. Plus, like a few other, I believe that the ending of the movie was a bit unsatisfying. I do get what the story was trying to do with the Evan Hansen and how he must move on from the situation, but again, this hits back messy story and questionable motives; rendering the final moments of the feature to hit a sour note rather than a positive outcome.

The cast in Dear Evan Hansen is relatively good…for the most part; finding the selected acting talent presented with enough gumption and life-like realism to make their respective characters shine throughout the feature. However, those particular characterization aren’t without their own flaws, with the script sort of stumbling in a few areas amongst them. Perhaps on the biggest blunders that the movie does is in the casting of actor Ben Platt in the role of the film’s main protagonist character of Evan Hansen. While Platt, who is known for his roles in Pitch Perfect, The Politician, and Ricki and the Flash, he is perhaps become more widely known for his portrayal of Evan Hansen on the Broadway stage production of Dear Evan Hansen. So, Platt’s familiarity with the character (complexity and all) seems well-founded and almost seems like almost like a logical choice to cast the actor in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical. However, that’s not so much the case. Yes, it is very true that Platt is quite the exceptional and gifted actor, whose voice sounds great when he’s singing, and that he certainly knows how to play such a character. However, the fact of the matter is that Platt, who is currently 28 years old (as of writing this review) looks that age of a late 20s / early 30 male adult, and that physical look to be presented as a seventeen / eighteen-year-old high school senior doesn’t really sit well. Of course, he looked that age of a teenager, then it would’ve work, but the fact of the matter is that really hard to buy into Platt playing a high school senior when his face / body has a more mature adult look. Naturally, Platt, having played the character of Evan before, gets everything else right…. from dialogue lines, nervous twitches, anxiety body movement and so on and so forth, but the uncanny valley effect of Platt playing a character that he’s physically too old to play comes off as a bit unrealistic and sort of takes me out of the movie. Some might argue that the casting choice of Platt to make Evan in the movie is a bit of nepotism, especially since Platt’s father, Marc Platt, is producer for the movie. Regardless of what a person may or may not think of the character of Evan Hansen (good or bad….as mentioned above), the fact remains that the movie’s iteration of the social anxiety teen is portrayed by actor whose too old-looking…..no matter how a person’s slices it.

Who actually fares better in Dear Evan Hansen (in both of terms of acting and character portrayal) is found within the character of Zoe Murphy, Connor’s sister and who is played by actress Kaitlyn Dever. Unlike Platt, Dever, who is known for her roles in Booksmart, Justified, and Last Man Standing, actually looks enough (physically) to pass off as a high school teenager, which makes her portrayal of Zoe that much more believable than Platt’s Evan. More to the point, Dever does get a chance to shine in the movie; finding Zoe to be struggling with her brother’s death as well as finding a connection with Evan. All in all, though she more of a secondary character, Dever’s Zoe does get a lot of substance to play around with, which is reflected in the movie’s final product.

The rest of the cast, including actress Julianne Moore (Still Alice and The Kids Are All Alright) as Evan’s mom Heidi Hansen, actress Amy Adams (Man of Steel and Sharp Objects) as Connor’s mother Cynthia Murphy, actor Danny Pino (Cold Case and Gone) as Connor’s father Larry Mora, actor Nik Dodani (Atypical and Escape Room) as Evan’s family relations friend Jared Kalwani, and actress Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games and The Hate U Give) as Evan’s classmate Alana Beck, are supporting side characters. For the most part, these characters play the support role; offering up character developments for several of the other main characters in the film, with the acting talents involved being the more “seasoned” and do most of the heavy-lifting (dialogue-wise) throughout the movie. That being said, some of the characters are a bit “on the nose” in their various personas…. almost like caricatures (i.e., the grieving parent, the overworked mom, the awkward friendship, etc.). So, it sort of goes hand-in-hand…. I guess.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment (as mentioned above) is how the movie sort of glosses over the character of Connor Murphy, who seems to be just an important part of the Dear Evan Hansen narrative. The character, who is played by actor Colton Murphy (Little Voice and Uncle Frank), doesn’t get much time in the movie for us (the viewers) to get to know him and, while I understand that is part of the inherit storyline of the narrative, it still seems like a missed opportunity for this film adaptation to further examine the character of Connor. Again, I am disappointed in that regard.

FINAL THOUGHTS


Evan Hansen finds himself in a very precarious situation; finding himself locked into a lie of which he struggling to control over as events unfold around him in the movie Dear Evan Hansen. Director Stephen Chbosky’s latest film takes the popular Broadway show of the same name and translates it for a cinematic representation; channeling the youthful angst of musical whimsy within the songs and tackling such dark subjects in the guise of a “coming of an age” story. Unfortunately, with there is a plenty of sincerity on this project and good intentions are drawn, the movie itself is quite shallow in its representation; struggling to find a proper balance due to the feature’s structure, questionable decisions, a lackluster script, failure to address large meanings, and some awkward casting choices. Personally, I was disappointed with this movie, and I’m conflicted about this project. I definitely get where the story was coming from and the intent that was presented, but the overall premise and glossed over narration elements (main or subtext) just doesn’t sit well with me. Plus, the movie’s themes just don’t work and feels more like a shallow endeavor. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is sadly a “skip it”. Fans of the Broadway musical might check this movie out, but I think it’s not worth the time for everyone else, especially since the project is marred by its own fumbling mistakes and attempts. Again, this is just a disappointing translation and I’m just walked away from the movie feeling confused and conflicted about what I just saw. In the end, however, Dear Evan Hansen, much like main character, has the honest attentions of trying to make something good out of a bad situation, but the result is a sour and unsatisfying taste; rendering the film as a disheartening “coming of age” teen musical.

2.4 Out Of 5 (Skip It)

 

Released On: September 24th, 2021
Reviewed On: November 10th, 2021

Dear Evan Hansen  is 137 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive reference



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