Dear Evan Hansen
Run Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
Stars: Ben Platt, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever
Writer: Steven Levenson
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Reviewed at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival
A feel-good musical that focuses on teenage depression and suicide? I can’t believe I’m sitting here saying, “Yes, please!”
Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t just walk a tightrope; the film’s endlessly appealing cast spends more than two hours heroically keeping their balance above a chasmic black hole of a premise that would make The Flying Wallendas say, “No thanks, we’ll pass.” There are questionable plot hooks and discordant character changes aplenty, but all is well thanks to a buoyant song score and flawless performances from all involved.
Evan (Ben Platt), an awkward, introverted high schooler, has no real friends. To help deal with his social anxiety, a therapist assigns him to write himself a daily “Dear Evan Hansen” letter full of upbeat platitudes and general encouragement. He has a hopeless crush on a fellow student named Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), an affection that lands him in trouble with her aggressive brother Connor (Colton Ryan).
So far, we’re all very much in Saved by the Bell territory — until the news of Connor’s suicide begins rocketing through the school. A truly unlikely series of events soon leads Connor’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) to believe that Evan was Connor’s one and only friend. Not wishing to stomp on the couple’s broken hearts, Evan reluctantly concocts an entire false history with Connor, relating to them joyful tales of the pair’s happy antics.
Of course, the ruse soon spins out of control, and soon Evan is standing on stage at a school assembly in Connor’s memory, going viral with his heartfelt plea for lonely kids everywhere to reach out to one another. For Evan, the single upside of all this is a lot of attention from Connor’s sister Zoe.
Since this is just a movie, and the people aren’t real, the story could easily have ended here, with Evan finally finding a voice and Connor’s parents happy to know their son, who they thought was utterly alone in his depression, had at least one good friend in his too-short life. But there’s more than an hour of movie left at this point and, as if we were somehow living in the old Hollywood Hays Office days, no lie — not even a well-intentioned one — can go unpunished.
Thanks to an out-of-character act of betrayal by another student (Amandla Stenberg), Evan’s once-sweet story soon curdles like the contents of a lunchroom milk carton. Soon everyone is feeling betrayed by Evan — including his loving, if preoccupied, mother (Julianne Moore). The wrap-up is bittersweet, with everyone having learned tough lessons but, when you think about it, not particularly better off than when we started (Connor’s parents, especially, seemed a lot happier living in Evan’s delusion).
Dear Evan Hanson comes to the screen even as the Broadway musical that inspired it is about to re-open after a COVID-19 mandated hiatus. Most of the original songs have been kept, along with Tony Award-winning star Platt in the title role — a tricky decision, since he’s now 26. Yes, maybe he’s a bit old for the part, but with those enormous eyes and awkward gestures, Platt more than makes up for his chronological handicap with deep knowledge of the character.
Julianne Moore makes the most of a frustratingly minimal role as Evan’s harried but devoted mom. She tears at your heart in her one standout musical number, but the film’s voice coach did Moore no favors by teaching her to trill like a teenage contestant on The Voice.
Is Dear Evan Hansen almost criminally manipulative? Yep. I don’t remember the last time I cried at a movie, but darned if the sight of Connor’s parents embracing to the strains of Evan’s “You Will Be Found” didn’t get the waterworks started.
The movies aren’t always about thinking. Dear Evan Hanson is one of those movies that invites us to jump into the filmmaker’s river — even knowing there are some pretty jagged rocks in there — and go with the flow.
Featured image: Ben Platt and Julianne Moore in Dear Evan Hansen (Universal Studios)
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