Dear Evan Hansen soars with songs, but struggles with words
The year of the movie musical™ continues with one of biggest stage musicals of recent years, Dear Evan Hansen, making its way to the big screen. The film, just like the Broadway version, stars Ben Platt, who’s seen his star ascend thanks to his role in the production. But given that the character is a high school student and Platt is now 27 years old, his believability in the part will depend on the judgment of each viewer.
The story of Dear Evan Hansen is tough to synopsize since it hinges on a shocking act and the resulting reactions to that act, descriptions of which threaten to spoil things for the uninitiated. What can be said is that Evan Hansen (Platt) is a very socially awkward teen, a situation not helped by his mom, Heidi (Julianne Moore), working most nights. Evan secretly pines for Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), dreaming of the day he can work up the nerve to talk to her.
In therapy for depression and anxiety, Evan is given an exercise to write letters to himself — hence the title of the show — to work through his feelings. One of those letters winds up in the hands of Zoe’s brother Connor (Colton Ryan), setting in motion a series of events that finds Evan doing things he never thought he’d do. And once the ball gets rolling, he finds it almost impossible to stop it.
Directed by Stephen Chbosky and written by original book author Steven Levenson, the film pares down the musical parts of the show, excising four songs that were apparently deemed unnecessary to the plot. This decision allows Levenson to devote more attention to the internal struggle of Evan, something that gets stronger as the story goes along.
All of the most memorable songs, composed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, made the cut, including “Waving Through a Window,” a song that now opens the film and establishes Evan’s awkwardness, along with “For Forever,” “If I Could Tell Her,” “You Will Be Found,” and “Only Us.” A new song written for the film, “The Anonymous Ones,” helps to flesh out the character of Alana (Amandla Stenberg), whose part in the stage version left the character’s motivations unexplored.
Anyone familiar with the story will know that it can be uncomfortable to watch. Evan is the protagonist and the audience wants to root for him simply because of that fact. But his actions can sometimes be hard to stomach, making you want to reach through the screen and shake some sense into him. The story asks viewers to understand the role his mental issues play in his decisions, but it gets more and more difficult to do that the deeper he gets.
Chbosky and Levenson occasionally have trouble getting across the import of certain parts of the story, most notably the shocking act that starts the main part of the plot. Emotion is not hard to find in the songs of Dear Evan Hansen, but when the characters only have spoken dialogue on which to rely, words often fail to match the moment, to paraphrase one of the final songs.
For all the jokes of how old Platt looked in the trailer for the film, he winds up doing a great job of conveying the essence of the character. After inhabiting "Evan" for so many years, he knows exactly what to do to make him convincing. Dever and Stenberg do well in their parts, but the film doesn’t make great use of Moore or Amy Adams. It’s not until the final song of the film, “So Big/So Small,” that Moore finally gets her due.
Dear Evan Hansen is far from a great film, but neither is it out-and-out unwatchable, as many had predicted. Anyone who’s a fan of the musical will likely be satisfied with the result, as the best songs of the bunch deliver the goods when needed.
Dear Evan Hansen opens in theaters on September 24.