Review: Touching 'Dear Evan Hansen' isn’t the disaster you think it is
Courtesy of Universal
When the trailer for Stepehn Chobsky’s (“The Perks of Being A Wallflower”) musical adaptation of the Tony award winning hit “Dear Evan Hansen'' premiered, many questioned how Ben Platt, a 27-year old who originated the role of the the awkward, titular teen, could find himself still playing, well, a teenager. And the backlash was swift. It’s demise was written before audiences would get a chance to see it and once most figured out what the controversial plot was, there was no going back. Much has been dissected about the moral and ethical dilemmas of “Dear Evan Hansen” which, if you ask the right person, presents a skewed look at mental heath and suicide. Not without several flaws, Chobsky’s presentation doesn’t translate completely to the small screen or reach nirvana like “In The Heights” did earlier this year, but this somber and thoughtful musical isn’t the train wreck you’d assume. It’s quite moving and, gasp, Ben Platt is actually great.
No stranger to documenting young adolescence and offbeat high school narratives, Chobsky, working with a script by Steven Levenson which is based on the musical by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, “Dear Evan Hansen” carefully navigates not entirely musical-friendly territory. They’re big and splashy musical numbers, but the heart of the movie is about finding yourself and parents and children longing for acceptance in a cruel social media/digital age, which is ironically what has plagued the movie’s commercial prospects. Levenson has taken minor creative liberties, cutting several songs and adding some, amplifying background characters to align with the cultural shift since the Broadway show’s 2016 inception, including a tweaked finale that almost reshapes the entire movie. It’s not easy, but Chobsky and company pull it off.
Platt hasn’t done himself any favors in the weeks leading up to the film’s release either, all but securing himself as Twitter’s punching bag for defending his choice to reprise the role that made him a household name. In retrospect, he should have let the movie do the talking because he’s got the vocal chops and mannerism down where ten minutes into the film, you almost can’t imagine anyone else donning the arm cast and blue polo. The narrative remains intact as the movie follows Evan Hansen, a socially challenged high schooler riddled with anxiety, who gets swept into a lie that becomes a cultural phoneoman. One of the more noteworthy Broadway turns of recent memory, Platt captures the same momentum and energy that secured him a Tony award, showcasing a range of expressiveness where you could follow this kid anywhere, even if you vehemently disagreed with his actions.
The main plot rides on a note Evan, with the guidance of his therapist, wrote to himself in an effort to build self-esteem. The letter winds up in the possession of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a troubled teen with no friends who many in the school assume to be the next unabomber. The next day, he takes his own life and though no suicide note is found, he’s discovered with Evan’s letter, leaving the false impression these two loners were best pals. Connor’s parents, (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) are touched by their son’s “secret” relationship and welcome Evan as if he was their own. Considering Evan’s mother (Julianne Moore) works late shifts at the hospital and his dad is out of the picture, getting home cooked meals and being part of a normal family opens an entirely new worldview for the teen who also has an affection for Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever - terrific).
It’s problematic as Evan uses his newfound school notoriety to get closer to Zoe, who the day before was lost for words and didn’t know how to compose himself in front of his crush. And the foundation takes a while to get laid before the big lie grows into a devious entanglement of doctored emails and photos used to convince other students, namely Alana Beck (a wonderful Amandla Stenberg), of Evan’s relationship with Connor. One of the more inspired additions to “Dear Evan Hansen,” in the movement from stage to screen, is the addition of Alana’s song “The Anonymous Ones,” which deepens the character’s social constructs and makes her, admittley, less annoying. Stenberg collaborated with the filmmakers on the song, helping contextualize her character beyond the peppy student body president with a hankering to change the world. Nik Dodani also scores laughs playing Evan’s “family” friend, Jared.
But it all comes back to Platt who anchors “Dear Evan Hansen” with soothing vocals and a humanizing, eerily relatable character stuck in his own mind. He is 1000% committed and though he could do with a less silly hairstyle, the crux of the show remains complete. Chobsky occasionally overshoots the sweeping musical scenes with awkward angles and close-ups and during the rendition of “You Will Be Found” tries to throw a callback to the Broadway show that lands with a thud. Still, “Dear Evan Hansen,” more often than not, hits the right notes. The polazring reception confirms everyone will react differently. See it for yourself and make your own judgment. You might be surprised.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN opens in theaters Friday, September 24th