Dear Evan Hansen (2021)
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Screenwriters: Steven Levenson
Starring: Ben Platt, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg
Dear Evan Hansen, the movie with the trailer that caused a meltdown within the global film community, is finally here. The highly anticipated (maybe not for the right reasons) adaptation of the hit Broadway musical that brought many to question the moral compass of the filmmakers and wonder why on earth a then 27-year-old Ben Platt was playing a high schooler, is a film with as many issues as were evident in its trailers: a controversial, melodramatic and predictable movie musical that leaves you wondering why the show was ever as successful as it was.
Much of the debate around the film’s morals comes from the fact that the story revolves around Evan Hansen, an anxious and depressed high school student who lies about his friendship with a fellow student, Connor Murphy, who committed suicide, after their parents find a letter Evan wrote to himself, believing it to be a suicide note.
But first things first… Ben Platt sticks out like a sore thumb as Evan Hansen. Though it’s understandable why having the original Evan Hansen back for the movie would seem like a good idea – even if only to cause some buzz for the film among fans of musical theatre – it comes as a questionable decision given the fact that Platt does not look that much younger, let alone 10 years younger, than his actual age. Of course, this is cinema, work some of that movie magic, but it doesn’t even seem like there was an attempt to de-age Platt through makeup. A ridiculous wig certainly didn’t help either.
The noticeable age difference between Platt and the rest of the cast is off-putting, especially due to the fact that you never really get used to Evan Hansen looking like a near 30 year old man. It remains constantly jarring, even more so with the fact that Evan is romantically interested in a fellow student. That being said, it cannot be glossed over that Ben Platt does give a genuinely great performance, bringing a level of understanding and empathy to the character – a difficult task given that what Evan Hansen is doing is terribly wrong. In Dear Evan Hansen it’s easy to see why Ben Platt won a Tony award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his original performance as the titular character, yet the issues keep coming back to Platt’s casting. As good as the performance is, Platt’s jarring placement alongside the rest of the cast does take us out of it and one can’t help but to wonder whether we could have felt even more sympathetic toward Evan if a younger actor had been given the part, eliminating the dissociation brought on by Platt’s appearance.
Ben Platt’s casting isn’t the only element of the film to bring both the good and the bad. The writing is also a mix of very good ideas and equally as terrible ones – it can only be described as providing conflicting viewing. The screenplay creates a heart-breaking backstory for Evan that ensures an empathetic character, something that is nearly completely ruined by the character’s actions throughout the film. Some empathy remains, but not enough for the audience to really route for Hansen, and herein lies the biggest issue with Dear Evan Hansen.
Every other character is shallow and weakly written. Most noticeably Jared Kalwani, a family friend of Evan’s, spends the film being perhaps the largest source of negativity in Evan’s life, yet he’s framed as some kind of wacky sidekick. It simply does not work and the character is detestable from start to finish. Furthermore, the two mothers of the story – Evan’s mother and Connor’s mother, portrayed by iconic actors Julianne Moore and Amy Adams respectively – have little to no characterisation and are such huge wastes of talent. Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) puts in an acceptable performance as Evan’s love interest and Connor’s sister Zoe, but the love story between Zoe and Evan never sits comfortably. Zoe is a high schooler but Evan looks nearly 30. It’s an uncomfortable start to say the least, and the relationship between the two never quite recovers.
As for the film’s musical numbers, the original Broadway cast recording offered up an album of some really great songs and the cast of the film are sadly never able to live up to such high standards. To make matters worse, many of the more varied parts of the soundtrack, such as “Anybody Have a Map?” (a song which would have added some much needed depth to Amy Adams and Julianne Moore’s characters) were taken out and some new songs were added, ultimately turning a rather good Broadway soundtrack into a dull affair. Maybe the one standout song is “Sincerely, Me”, a catchy and upbeat number that brings some life to the musical but also comes with its own issues. Although it may be catchy and easy to be sucked into, the song also takes place as Evan manipulatively writes emails between himself and the deceased Connor in order to trick his family into believing they were friends. Even worse is the fact that the song is played for laughs, so whilst you are dancing along to the song you are snapped back into the reality of how disturbing the whole thing is.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the musical side of the film is that the timespan between songs does tend to be longer than most musicals. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but with many of the songs being understated in their own right it is easy to slip into the idea that Dear Evan Hansen is a simple coming-of-age drama. This then makes it pretty jarring when characters break out into song, even more so during the most emotional scenes.
Of course, it isn’t all bad. Though the songs may not be particularly fantastic there are a number of tracks that genuinely have great messages in regards to mental health, even if they are surrounded by an entire film that may not deal with the topic as well as it could. The way in which the flick shows the different levels of the Murphy family’s grief also creates an interesting dynamic and, once again, it must be stated that Ben Platt does genuinely give a very good performance and there are some redeeming qualities to the character. Dear Evan Hansen, in spite of its many issues, also does tie itself up nicely in the end.
Dear Evan Hansen is by no means a perfect film – it has dull musical numbers, a problematic protagonist, a questionable moral compass and is a musical that does not feel like a musical – but it’s not quite the dumpster fire that the trailer seemed to promise. It is, instead, a heavily flawed film with a very small handful of redeeming qualities that make it possible to see why some may have enjoyed the original stage musical. In a year full of great musicals such as In The Heights, Annette and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie however, Dear Evan Hansen is most definitely one of the least enjoyable and artistic of the movie musicals released theatrically in 2021.