Dear Evan Hansen is Hollywood’s newest entry on the road to reviving the musical genre. The Broadway musical by musicians and lyricist Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is coming to the big screen via Universal to see if it can capitalize on general audience approval.
So how does the film, which opened the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday night, stack up against the stage adaptation? Well, it stands closer to Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods (an adaptation of a Broadway play), meaning it’s terrible. Dear Evan Hansen could have been enjoyable, but there are too many glaring problems that can’t be ignored for the sake of entertainment.
Ben Platt stars as Evan Hansen, a frail-looking high school student who considers himself invisible to all. He’s not popular, not attractive to girls, and even other nerds don’t want to bother with him. The only confidant he has is Jared Kalwani (Nik Dodani), who considers Evan nothing more than an acquaintance. A golden opportunity for change comes when Evan crosses paths with Connor Murphy, an emo-type youngster who scares his classmates with his angst, who happens to be the brother of his crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). Evan walks around school with his arm in a cast, and Connor offers to sign it. After signing, Connor finds a letter Evan wrote to himself as a class assignment and runs off with it.
The letter is found by Connor’s parents Cynthia and Larry, after he suddenly dies. They want to meet Evan because they think he was their son’s only friend due to what was said in the note and seeing Connor’s name written on his cast. Instead of coming clean, Evan fabricates an entire history that never existed between him and their son. This allows him to create the fantasy life he’s always wanted, which includes getting closer to Zoe.
The more he continues to withhold the truth, the more elaborate his lies, and soon he’s lying to everyone, including social media. Evan exploits Connor’s memory for clout. He’s famous now, dating Zoe and loved by Connor’s parents. His warped web of lies is so powerful he truly begins to believe he’s telling the truth. But his delusions don’t last forever, and when the bubble pops, it’s clear Evan had no idea of the impact his lies would have on himself and others. Sure he knew he wasn’t honest, but he honestly thought everything would turn out OK. The kid is a hot mess.
The Broadway musical is popular among theatergoers, as many found it relatable to people who consider themselves outcasts with little to no support. The show won several Tony Awards for the actors and the production. Still, it is an irreparably problematic piece of work that manipulates the audience by forcing them to feel sympathy for being a compulsive liar whose own mental illness is exploited. To top it all off, Evan is forgiven by everyone around him and sees no real consequences for his actions just because they can understand where he’s coming from?! This story is complete madness from beginning to end, but at least the actors can sing.
The film’s stars are good singers, particularly Amandla Stenberg, who has a commanding voice that stands out because she sounds natural and is the only one not pretending she’s performing at the Music Box theater in New York. The music arrangements are solid, but why does every single song start with the actor singing in a hushed, monotone voice that goes up and down until it’s time to belt those notes out? Was that a creative choice for the film, or is that how it is in the show as well? Either way, it’s frustrating to sit through that for nearly 2.5 hours.
Dear Evan Hansen is an exercise in restraint. You either want to scream at the screen or shrink down in your chair from suffering secondhand embarrassment from these characters and their actions. The story is convinced it’s making a bold statement about mental illness, finding community and class structures, but it feels inauthentic and shallow. Connor is being exploited from beyond the grave and doesn’t choose about being on the receiving end. This film won’t inspire empathy or sympathy but disdain and indifference.
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