Review: Dear Evan Hansen

By Christian DiMartino

Dear Evan Hansen is a film musical that makes the mistake of being a musical. Here is a film in which the material and the story are compelling on its own. So whenever a character suddenly bursts into song, it feels more like a well-intentioned distraction. Actions speak louder than words. In this case, the acting would’ve done enough of the heavy lifting. The songs aren’t terrible, necessarily, but the material could’ve just as easily been spoken.

Since this film’s release and premiere, it has been the subject of much mockery. Actually, the mockery probably began with the film’s trailer, in which we see Ben Platt playing a teenager. Platt was only 27 at the time of filming, but he does stick out like the sorest thumb. Sure, adults usually play teenagers, but he doesn’t quite pass the test in the look department, at least. Unless this was intended as a remake of Never Been Kissed. The reviews for the film itself have also been pretty harsh too, and honestly, I was ready to join the choir of hatred. So what’s kind of shocking is that, well, I sort of went for it.

There are things in Dear Evan Hansen that don’t work and the flaws are plain to see. But… I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t find the film thoroughly compelling and engaging. Not to mention, even if it is a bit manipulative, it manipulated me. The film is directed by Stephen Chbosky, who also made The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder, two effective films that tapped into just what the adolescent experience was like, but in two pretty different ways. Dear Evan Hansen does as well, and even if Chbosky doesn’t fully stick the landing, in the end, the film got to me enough to be mostly on board with it. Damn the flaws.

The film follows the title character, who is an awkward loner in his senior year of high school. Again, there is no denying that Platt does look a bit too old for the part, but compensation comes in the fact that Platt really does have a lovely singing voice. Even as someone opposed to the singing aspect in Dear Evan Hansen, it would be churlish for me to knock the vocal work. Which Platt, who played the role on Broadway, really does excel in. Also, although the casting choice can and perhaps should be knocked, how often are teenagers cast as teenagers? Kaitlyn Dever, the wonderful young star of Booksmart and Last Man Standing, stars as a teenager here, and she’s in her mid-20s. Mind you, she passes more than Platt does, but still. This isn’t that unheard of of a concept.

Anyways, Evan Hansen has maybe only one friend, and has recently broken his arm. He has the loving support of his mother (Julianne Moore, brief but effective), but she is often busy with work. His therapist currently has him doing an exercise where he writes letters to himself to give him more meaning. One of his fellow classmates, a controversial loner named Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), signs his name on Evan’s cast and snatches one of these letters from him. The two barely know each other, but Evan does have a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Dever).The next day, it turns out that Connor has committed suicide, and having had recent contact with Connor, Evan is a bit affected by the situation.

But boy, he doesn’t know what’s coming. Murphy’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) contact Evan and show him that they’ve found his letter. They are under the impression that Connor wrote this letter to Evan, and that the two were secretly best friends, but Connor neglected to mention it. Evan tries to explain himself, but the Murphy’s are given so much hope and feel such an immediate connection to Evan that he doesn’t have the heart to tell them that he barely knew him. So he doesn’t reveal the truth, but does form a bond with the family. Soon he finds his popularity rising, but also he finds himself becoming a part of something bigger than he ever imagined, while also trying to spare everyone’s feelings while also finding a new meaning in his life.

It all sounds pretty corny, from the way it’s been described, and clearly for the naysayers, it is. Yet there is something about this kind of concept that might always be engaging. Not this specific topic, but the idea of someone withholding a secret and seeing where it takes them. Sure, we know the destination cannot be a good one, but we’re always curious to see how it reaches that destination. What’s pretty gripping about Dear Evan Hansen is we know he isn’t a bastard, but his behavior isn’t wise. We root for him to do the right thing, and yet we fear for what the “right thing” might bring. Contrary to the hero’s actions, he isn’t a bad fella, but rather, he is not only being rewarded with the most attention he’s perhaps ever received, but also, at what point could he really bring a halt to it without devastating everyone around him? The film walks an interesting line, and it might not always be one you’re willing to walk with it, but it nonetheless held me.

Until they start singing.

Songs can convey emotion and be successful. Take a film like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The songs are used by means of expression, but they also managed to add to the story, while also just being good songs. The songs in Dear Evan Hansen aren’t necessarily bad, but every time I’d catch myself getting caught up in the film and the characters, I’d find myself immediately being taken out of the movie because of the singing. Simply speaking would’ve done the trick just as well, or better. Though I would be lying if I said that Platt doesn’t have a terrific voice. Knock the casting all you want, but the boy can sing. To further that… I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the film somewhat effective.

It isn’t a completely successful journey, obviously. The songs shouldn’t be, Platt’s casting feels off at times, the film is undeniably manipulative, the actions of the film’s hero are sometimes too frustrating… but it held me. It didn’t only hold me, but what the film was trying to get across in its message, it succeeded in affecting me. The performances and the storytelling do a thoroughly decent job of holding and investing you even when the film takes a stumble. Chbosky and Co. haven’t delivered a triumph with Dear Evan Hansen, but it’s the kind of yarn that I, shockingly, found myself getting caught up in.

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