Dear Evan Hansen (2021): Review

Note: There will be spoilers for the plot of the movie in this review. So if you haven’t seen it yet or don’t want to know anything about the plot, read no further. I’m going to go pretty heavily into things so just be careful!

Dear Evan Hansen, today was going to be a good day until I watched your stupid movie.

A little backstory before I begin.

I’ve been a fan of this musical since before it opened on Broadway. I was a fan of Ben Platt from Pitch Perfect and Laura Dreyfuss (the original Zoe Murphy) from her time on Glee shortly before the musical opened. I listened to the soundtrack the second it came out with a friend and enjoyed it immensely. As they are now known for doing, Benji Pasek and Justin Paul wrote and composed some excellent songs for the musical. Striking a balance between fun numbers and emotional ballads, Dear Evan Hansen offered variety that seemed to push it past its resonant themes and attempts at tugging at the heartstrings.

Now, despite how much I loved the soundtrack, I have not seen the stage musical performed live. The show was only open in London for around four months before it closed due to COVID-19. It’s set to reopen very shortly but, honestly, I’m not sure that I’m itching to see it.

Which brings me to the reason for the review: the movie adaptation.

Dear Evan Hansen was directed by Stephen Chbosky, who is most widely known for writing the edgy coming-of-age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower and both writing and directing its subsequent adaptation in 2012, as well as his take on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It stars Ben Platt in the eponymous role, one that won him a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Other cast members include Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Danny Pino, and Colton Ryan.

The premise itself is quite simple on the surface. Evan Hansen is a mentally-ill teenager who winds up lying about being friends with Connor Murphy, a boy who has committed suicide. Finding himself in too deeply to admit the truth, Evan uses his lies to bond with Connor’s family, including striking up a relationship with Connor’s sister Zoe, whom Evan has had a crush on. Eventually though, Evan is pushed to admit the truth and confront his lies as well as his own issues.

There’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s all the important stuff, really. Something I didn’t realise while simply listening to the soundtrack is how messed up it all is. The movie does seem to try to redeem Evan in the epilogue, but the consequences of his actions are never truly felt. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The choice to make this movie in the first place was an obvious one. Produced by Ben Platt’s own father, Marc Platt, Dear Evan Hansen is an adaptation of a smash-hit, Tony-winning musical that seemed to touch the hearts of everyone who saw it. From what I read of the musical, the songs were dynamic and exciting, the performances leapt off the stage, and the messages hit home with sincere emotions that stayed with the audiences long after they left the theatre.

The movie…does none of this.

Yes, it’s time to admit to you all that I loathed this movie.

It’s not often I review things that I actively hate as I really do try not to bring down the people who worked really hard on making this movie, many of whom I have a great deal of artistic respect for. But, as a fan of the musical, I can safely say that very little about this movie actually worked and it can come across as really quite damaging when it comes to its themes.

I’ll start with the most talked about aspect of this film before its release…the casting of Ben Platt in the titular role. As of writing this review, Ben Platt is 28 years old. When the show opened, he was 23, which is a much more understandable age to be playing a character who is 17/18 years old. It happens all the time on television: teen shows are saturated with attractive adults who have to play younger characters. Platt, in the right circumstances, has quite a young-looking face so the decision to have him reprise his role makes a fair bit of sense. It’s his hair that gave him away. It’s curly and untamed and it really ages him. Platt is fairly good in the role he knows like the back of his hand, though. His musical performances are decent, but a lot of the time his acting feels as though he’s very out of place in each scene and it can be very distracting watching him play ten years younger than his actual age. All in all, it just feels a little…forced. It didn’t feel natural for Platt to take on this role, even though his performance in the show was almost unanimously praised.

Kaitlyn Dever who plays Zoe, Evan’s love interest, is only about three years younger than Platt but it makes a great deal of difference to the performance. Like Platt, Dever has quite a youthful look about her. The difference lies in the fact that she actually feels like a good fit for Zoe Murphy. I’ve been a fan of Dever for a while now, her turns in Booksmart, Short Term 12, and Unbelievable rightly earning her a lot of recognition in the industry. If there’s a saving grace of Dear Evan Hansen, Dever is it. She handles her musical moments well, particularly impressing in one of my favourite songs from the musical, “Requiem”. She plays Zoe with depth, a girl who is painted into a corner, expected to mourn for a brother towards whom she held a great deal of resentment, and battling her own guilt for not feeling the way she’s expected to. It really is a delightful performance and one that deserves a better movie that’s worthy of it.

That’s not to say that rest of the cast is bad, because there’s a good deal to appreciate amongst the supporting roles. Julianne Moore impresses as Heidi, a role that appears to be a lot less substantial in the movie. Sure, she has her showstopper, “So Big/So Small” but that’s an issue for later. Amy Adams continues her streak of being good in movies I didn’t like. I disagree with reviews that say she’s not very good here because she is and she gives Cynthia a lot that doesn’t seem to be present in the source material. Amandla Stenberg takes Alana’s enhanced role and does the best with what is still a weakly written role, and Colton Ryan leaves a lasting impression as the deceased Connor Murphy.

So if the music is good and the cast is good…you might be wondering what the problem is.

The first major problem of Dear Evan Hansen is, well, the whole story.

The musical and movie purport themselves to be explorations of mental health and loneliness within a landscape of social media, and finding companionship in the places you’d least expect. There’s a very brief foray into social media in a bizarre sequence during the song “You Will Be Found”, the musical’s Act 1 closer. It’s the typical way to portray something going viral, a rising viewcount, a lot of random people reacting to something, and a barrage of tiny windows that come together to create a full picture. It’s clichéd, more than a little on the nose, and mostly just uninspired.

As for the mental health aspect of the movie, I personally don’t think it’s handled well at all. As someone who has and continues to struggle with a variety of mental health issues, Dear Evan Hansen feels exploitative and a little harmful. It uses Evan’s therapy assignment as the catalyst for the story…which, fine, okay, it needed something to kick it off. But the main reason Evan continues to lie and manipulate the Murphys is because he feels alone and wants to be a part of the tight-knit family they have become in the wake of Connor’s death. He takes Cynthia and Larry’s generosity and interest and uses it to fill a hole within himself. It’s around this point that it’s revealed that Evan is skipping therapy appointments and it’s as though the movie is saying that he’s okay now. He’s dating Zoe, he’s a poster-child for The Connor Project, which focuses on making people feel less alone, and his life seems to be going okay. Great for him…except the fact that he’s continuing to manipulate and lie to literally everyone in his life. And although the movie doesn’t say that this is acceptable, it basically chalks it up to Evan feeling alone. It’s foreshadowed throughout the movie and revealed near the end that Evan attempted suicide and the fact that this feels like a plot twist really didn’t sit well with me. And this might not be a problem with the filmmaking, but it says a lot about the decision to make it in the first place. I know people have different takes on it and the musical and movie might have helped a lot of people feel understood and seen but, for me, I feel a little unnerved by how much of Evan’s behaviour is excused.

Now for the second, bigger problem of the movie…its direction.

It’s easy to see why Chbosky was chosen for the project. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of my favourite films. It deals with mental health, finding family in places besides your actual family, and how a support network can help you process your trauma. He drew a brilliant and still-underrated performance from Logan Lerman and the film was generally well-received. He’s worked on a high-grossing musical before, too, but it turns out that juggling both at the same time is where Chbosky’s limitations lie.

The musical numbers are, in a word, uninspired. There is a very minimal amount of choreography or even an attempt at creating something interesting with the songs. “Sincerely, Me” is expectedly a dynamic, upbeat number which feels markedly different to the rest of them in the movie. Powerful songs such as “Words Fail” and “Waving Through a Window” consist largely of Ben Platt standing and looking at something, or walking down a hallway in the latter’s case. As for the aforementioned “So Big/So Small”, which should have been a standout moment for screen legend Julianne Moore becomes so dull as Moore and Platt are literally just sat on couches as Chbosky opts for a shot-reverse-shot style to capture it. I’m unsure of how it was staged in the musical, but the boring shot and blocking decisions zap most of the emotions out of the song, which is one of the most poignant on the soundtrack. Moore sounds good, but the power is lost and no amount of effort on her part can save it. I’ve mentioned my issue with the amateurish vibe of “You Will Be Found”, and it just feels like every big musical moment in the movie is buried under lifeless direction and blocking. Absolute wasted potential is all I will say.

That’s not to mention to omission of some interesting character songs like “Good For You” (which at least attempts to hold Evan accountable, even if inside the safety of his own guilty mind) and “Anybody Have a Map” which provides valuable insight into the lives of the Hansen and Murphy families which is noticeably absent from the film. I understand the omission of “Disappear” which sees Connor appear to Evan (inside Evan’s head?) and beg him to keep his memory alive. This gives Evan some motivation to continue the lies, believing The Connor Project to be the noble thing to do and something that Connor would want (rather than it being a manifestation of his own guilt). I almost appreciate the desire to remain separate from the musical, but it’s hard to draw a line between the two as Ben Platt is present in most of the songs and scenes.

I liked the original songs, though. It can be hard when an existing musical adds extra content in a seemingly desperate attempt to earn an easy nomination in the Original Song category at the Oscars (yes, I’m looking at you “Suddenly” from Les Misérables, one of the most forgettable additions to any movie musical). Amandla Stenberg sounds great on “The Anonymous Ones” (and the SZA version is also great), while “A Little Closer” does some nice character work for Connor while showcasing Colton Ryan’s beautiful voice. The latter is my favourite of the two and it’s a shame that the movie chooses to use that song to focus on every other character but Connor. Evan hunts for more information from people who knew Connor and sends the results to the Murphys, Jared, and Alana, but the movie decides to ignore Connor completely and focus on them watching the video until the last five seconds. It just feels like an attempt to cover their tracks and gloss over the conflict that had been building for the last two hours.

Oh yes. This movie is long. Clocking in at 137 minutes, Dear Evan Hansen feels like a lifetime of cringe-inducing embarrassment, shoddy musical blocking, and lacklustre storytelling that barely stays afloat thanks to its talented cast and recognisable musical numbers. If this was an original movie-musical with no existing history on the stage, it would be showing up at the Razzies in a few months time.

Despite my respect for the performers and Pasek and Paul, this adaptation has zapped away all of my love for the source material and left a horrible taste in my mouth after watching it. Between this and Cats, maybe this is a sign that Universal (or maybe just Hollywood in general) should stop with these vapid adaptations of hit stage musicals. They rarely work as feature films and I’m willing to bet that the same treatment will befall my favourite musical (and another Universal/Marc Platt collaboration), Wicked.

To sum up, Dear Evan Hansen is mostly a waste of just about everyone’s time. Dever, Moore, and Ryan can look back at this and be fairly proud of their work, I don’t think too much of the rest of this film. It’s strange, writing about it in such detail has made me appreciate some things more (Moore’s performance mostly) but it’s just reinforced how much I hated watching it and how utterly disastrous it was on just about every level.

If the biggest problem this movie had was Ben Platt looking like a middle-aged man, I think it would’ve been okay but, sadly, it’s just not a very competently made film.

Dear Evan Hansen is in UK cinemas now!

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