‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Delivers Music in the Saddest Key (Movie Review)

Universal’s big-screen adaption of the Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen opened at this year’s Toronto International Film Fest earlier this month. The reception was mixed, to say the least. Then again, the studio’s last foray into song and dance was 2019’s disappointing Cats, so “mixed” is definitely a step up, right? The story concerns a teen who struggles with depression and anxiety (Ya know, THAT kind of musical). However, Ben Platt, who originated the role when it debuted off-Broadway in 2016, is now twenty-seven. Social media has tossed a fair amount of shade at the actor for being too old for the role in 2021. Sometimes advance buzz is exciting, other times less so. As someone who still watches CW teen shows starring actors in their twenties (and thirties!) Platt’s age is hardly a reason to toss out such an affecting albeit flawed production. As the performers take their places, let’s dive in…

As a part of an exercise by his therapist, Evan Hansen is required to write himself daily affirmations in the form of a letter (For example: “Dear Evan Hansen, today is gonna be an amazing day and here’s why”). One of those letters is mistakenly picked up by another teen, Connor (Colton Ryan), who also struggles with depression in a much angrier and toxic way. 24 hours later, Connor’s parents request to see Evan as their son has taken his life, and the letter was the only thing he had on him. Connor’s mother (Amy Adams) considers the letter as proof her son wasn’t a monster, although Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) has her doubts. Evan, a teen, enveloped by his own insecurities, panics,  going along with the lie, figuring it wouldn’t be too bad if it brings Connor’s family some peace for their recently deceased son.

While not a typical plot for a musical, knowing this was developed in the mid-2010s makes sense. There’s definitely a post-emo vibe to the lyrics, which showcases teens who struggle in their day-to-day lives while the “normals” seem to have life figured out in an utterly unremarkable suburban enclave. Narratively, this kind of story should be delicately handled as it deals with teen suicide. However, this is a musical and subtly isn’t one of the tools of that particular genre.

I found Platt’s performance incredibly earnest, as well as the rest of the cast. Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever, and Julianne Moore (who plays Evan’s mom) are all quite good. Evan’s “family friend” Jared (Nik Dondani) is the film’s only comedy relief character who, while solid, is regrettably underused. Still, this is, after all, Evan’s story, so it makes sense for most of the other characters to merely be there, only tangentially. Ultimately, Evan’s arc is more about the “new family” that adopts him, so to speak.

Musically, the tone, for the most part, stays within a very limited range. Often songs begin in a whisper and build to a predictable crescendo. One highlight takes place when Connor himself gets his own number from beyond the grave. It’s the closest the film gets to a fun dance number. Rent dealt with big depressing issues like the AIDS crisis, but the characters dance and sing with joy in their hearts for the most part. This is not that kind of musical.

As for the “Platt’s too old” issue, the rest of the primary high school-aged characters are all in their twenties, too, although Kaitlyn Dever could certainly pass a teen even all these years after she impressed in 2013’s Short Term 12. Even Spielberg’s upcoming remake of West Side Story looks like the casting leaned into talent more than just being age-accurate. What matters onscreen is that these make-believe teens are solid performers, and Platt, alongside co-stars like Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give) and Nik Dodani, impress as well.

Nearly a decade ago, director Stephen Chbosky directed the excellent teen drama The Perks of Being a Wallflower. His skills at presenting another teen world are no less compelling today. I think Steven Levenson’s script takes some big swings in the last act that don’t quite land, though. And a goofy montage of Connor’s life going viral falls totally flat. Still, the core of the film’s foundation, that of an alienated young man who makes many mistakes before owning up to them, rings true. Make light of Platt’s part if you want, but this musical ultimately still sings.

  1. No Comments