In 2021, movie musicals will be again in vogue. “In the Heights” and “Annette” were previously released. Spielberg’s retelling of “West Side Story,” titled “tick, tick… BOOM,” is next on the docket. In 2015, a coming-of-age musical called “Dear Evan Hansen“, based on a book by Steven Levenson, opened on Broadway to critical acclaim and worldwide success, winning six Tony Awards. It follows the eponymous character, a high school student suffering from social anxiety who uses a local tragedy for personal profit.
Evan (Ben Platt) has to wear a cast on his left arm which he broke after falling out of a tree. All Evan wants is to talk to Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever), the girl he likes who plays guitar. But, his anxiety stops him. To help ease this tension, Evan’s therapist suggests that he writes cheery letters addressed from “Dear Evan Hansen”. Zoe’s brother Connor (Colton Ryan) dies by suicide after taking one of Evan’s letters. Connor’s parents believe that Evan was his best friend, but the reality is far different. Evan plays along with the charade, gaining fame, adulation, and love at the expense of Connor’s memory.
Stephen Chbosky’s filmic retelling of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which stars 27-year old Ben Platt as the teenage lead character, falls flat. It is an overly long and emotionally manipulative story that is further dragged down by its trite songs, unengaging vocal performances, and weak writing.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is problematic and harmful because the entire plot relies on deceit. Connor’s grieving parents – Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) – meet with Evan under false pretenses; believing he was Connor’s one close friend. Instead of owning up to his duplicity, Evan enlists his friend Jared (Nik Dodani) to help create fake email exchanges between him and Connor. The correspondence depicts a scenario in which the couple visits Connor’s favorite orchard, Evan falls out of a tree and is nursed back to health by Connor, and Cynthia and Larry falling for the phony. Evan emerges as a cruel protagonist in his conning, and the film follows suit.
The songs in “Dear Evan Hansen” have been written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, such as “Only Us,” “Requiem,” and “Sincerely, Me.” However, these are not well-written songs that lack structure and flow. In addition, the lead character Evan Hansen is played by Zac Efron, who does an okay job despite being too old for the role. He’s 27 years old playing a teenager with juvenile shoulders. The one good thing about his performance is his flexible voice which can find glimmers of hope where there should be none.
Though Platt’s singing may be impressive, his choices are often too much and not well thought out. There is a collection of ticks and jitters that is usually meant to be funny but comes across as awkward instead. Additionally, having Platt reprise his role is one of the least appealing aspects of the film: his character development is weak, Evan has no depth whatsoever. Because Evan isn’t a likeable individual, his job gets more difficult. His unsympathetic depiction doesn’t solely stem from the fact that he lied about being friends with Connor. His rot grows unchecked in his apathy; he has almost no regard for Zoe’s feelings, her parents’ feelings, or even Connor’s feelings.
The only person in this movie who feels like an actual human being is Evan’s mother Heidi, played by Julianne Moore. She’s a single mom working late-night nursing shifts to pay for college for Evan. All she wants is the best for him, even when he doesn’t take notice of her efforts. The musical’s best scenes center around her and the first one occurs when Cynthia and Larry offer to cover Evan’s tuition. She’s proud, and you can see her thinking it over before she says no. The second is the film’s most tender vocal, Moore singing Judy Collins’ “So Big / So Small.” Everyone else in this musical isn’t just inconsistent–they’re badly written.
The revelation of the film’s central mystery is based on the complete betrayal of a character, Alanna (Amandla Stenberg). She’s the Student Body President who wants to prove she’s valuable. She’s the most selfless character in a film made up of egoistic individuals. However, because “Dear Evan Hansen” has such awful writing, it needs to undermine her by dragging her down with other worthless dreck like her. She ultimately takes a course of action that damages Evan.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is frustrating not just because of the plot, but also due to small details like costuming and set design which often look cheaply made. For example, T-shirts and sweaters are meant to make main character Evan look younger, but instead they make him look older. Additionally, the homes of both Evan and Zoe seem fake and lacking in personality. Evan looks at Connor’s yearbook to find out what his favorite books are, and he sees some heady titles like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle.” But then he realizes that Connor looks no more than 10 years old in the picture. The reading list is actually full of the stereotypical titles associated with suicidal teens. “Dear Evan Hansen” takes the lower, easier route at every turn, false claiming empathy for a group of misunderstood individuals.
Chbosky’s goal in “Dear Evan Hansen” is to sympathize with those going through mental health issues, but he and the source material have only a superficial understanding of such difficulties. The most awful moment (among numerous terrible ones) occurs when Evan sends Connor’s recording of him singing during a group therapy session to everyone he knows. Who films a group therapy session? Who then transmits the video? It’s clear emotional manipulation on the part of the film. Chbosky’s movie is solely concerned with tugging at your heartstrings and stamping them into the saccharine earth. “Dear Evan Hansen” is a godawful, ill-advised musical that has no regard for how out of tune it sounds.
Now playing on Cinema HD.
Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release dates: September 9, 2021 (TIFF), September 24, 2021 (United States)
Running time: 137 minutes
Country: United States