Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Cast: Ben Platt, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever
There may not be a more divisive film during these fall months than Dear Evan Hansen, based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway play. Whether or not you will like the movie version, which follows a high schooler whose therapy-assigned note to himself gets mistaken as the suicide note of his depressed acquaintance, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), will depend on how much you empathize with its protagonist.
Ben Platt plays Evan Hansen, the writer of the forlorn letter that’s headed, “Dear Evan Hansen,” in which he talks lovingly about Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), among other things that would portray Connor in a much more positive light than his family had ever expected—that is, if he had actually written it. The way the note is composed, it looks like Connor intended it to reach Evan, when in reality he stole it from the printer in the library. Played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino, Connor’s parents approach Evan with questions about their apparent friendship. He attempts to tell them the truth but is stricken with pity as he realizes that Connor didn’t actually leave a suicide note himself.
Evan and Connor are cut from the same cloth, both suffering from severe depression which hinders their ability to have any sort of social life, even preventing them from being friends themselves while Connor was alive. And since Connor had no other friends to speak of, the Murphys invite Evan into their lives as a way to connect to their son, who they really didn’t know in recent years. Inadvertently, Evan finds his own catharsis from making up stories to fill in the gaps of his own memory, strangely forming a bond with Connor after his death, just as his own made up stories do for the Murphys. He now has a friend who, in his head, joined him in his adventures rather than having to remember a life filled with loneliness. Eventually this allows him to come out of his shell socially, even helping to spearhead a suicide prevention foundation in honor of Connor.
Zoe, on the other hand, still wants to see her brother as a monster, since the two were not close at all a resistance to grieving that may be a sublimina sign for her that something’s not right with Evan’s stories.
At times, we’re so moved by the effect Evan is having on the Murphys that we forget his lies will all eventually come crashing down at some point. Fortunately, the big reveal does not simply happen because of leaked information, but through a scenario so unfortunate that Evan really doesn’t have a choice but to come forward with the truth. Listening to him try to keep his secret is occasionally cringeworthy, but the fallout from his “mea culpa” is as smooth as possible for the audience. And Evan, now as a much more confident and matured person, is set free in a way that revealing the truth earlier would not have done.
The songs themselves, which expound with the streamof-conscious reflection typically found in pop punk lyrics, cut through the awkwardness that many of these conversations would have had if spoken normally.
Having a protagonist with crippling anxiety, the film finds ways for Evan to communicate through song. The songs themselves, which expound with the stream-of-conscious reflection typically found in pop punk lyrics, cut through the awkwardness that many of these conversations would have had if spoken normally. Likewise, if the plot were to be riddled with characters pontificating every 15 minutes like they do while singing, the viewer would likely groan in agony if he weren’t already paralyzed from cringing.
The sound mixing in Dear Evan Hansen is among some of the best I’ve heard in a musical in recent years, perfectly mimicking the resonance, or lack thereof, of each room the characters are singing in, with several numbers recorded live on set. This gets more interesting when Evan enters into a crowded gymnasium for his opening number, or when several different characters are singing the same song in different rooms, and we hear certain types of reverbs that aren’t necessarily common in musicals.
If anything, Dear Evan Hansen is a great example of how the medium of cinema is unique in its capabilities, able to translate a story in a way that a live stage play cannot. In “Sincerely, Me,” this new medium is used to create a hypothetical cutaway sequence as Evan writes fake emails to and from Connor. The film goes back in time and brings Connor back to life to replay different ridiculous scenarios that never actually happened as they become written and rewritten. Moreover, the inherent look and feel of a movie, versus a play, allows for any jumps in time to be less confusing.
The individual musical numbers, while catchy and peppy, tend to blend together with their melodies, leaving only three or four standing out, particularly the opening track, “Waving Through a Window,” which immediately sets the tone and informs us of Platt’s vocal prowess. Unfortunately, the filmmakers betray the audience by undermining the most emotionally anticipated moment in the entire film with the recitative melodies of “Words Fail” rather than showing our character’s growth by having him actually face his issue head on through authentic communication.
The film’s biggest misstep isn’t the age gap of its actors to their characters (because who cares?), but the preponderance of musical numbers that weigh down the narrative. With eleven individual musical breaks, there are simply too many songs for a drama such as this, where no giant set pieces or choreography are there to justify all the interruptions. The subtext underneath the story is thoughtprovoking enough not to require any sort of overexplaining. But when it comes to actual dialogue, we can see why the movie prefers to hide its sentiment in song. On their own, the spoken words fall into conventional utilitarian verbiage and trite exposition, giving us lines such as, “You’re a senior in high school now, you should be able to order your own dinner.”
The actors are all very good regardless of the structured framework, finding inspiration from this unique scenario surrounding them. Despite any of the film’s safe choices elsewhere, its characters are drawn with depth and attrition, well-rounded in the way every main character should be in a drama like this, where intricate dynamics are crucial to making the story feel full and lived-in. We’re also able to see the misperceptions made by the general public, who may very well view these characters as mere archetypes and judge them as such, just as we do at that first dinner scene where Evan sits down with the Murphys.
Director Stephen Chbosky doesn’t ever paint on the sympathy, allowing us to get to know and love these characters through simply living with them. And while some of them may still be at odds with one another by the time the credits roll, it’s Evan’s view of them that matters most. Though Evan’s mom and Mrs. Murphy don’t like each other, the viewer is able to like both despite their flaws.
Each actor is phenomenal at conveying the complexities of his or her character. Platt, who played the role on stage as well, understands Evan in a way few actors ever understand their characters. Never flinching or faltering once, he becomes totally one with the socially inept protagonist, not judging him for his actions, yet creating a seamless transition throughout the film as Evan finds his confidence.
Julianne Moore, who plays Evan’s mother, has an uncanny way of convincing us that she’s as blind to her character’s subconscious as her character herself; giving a believability to unrealistic obliviousness. And then there’s Adams and Pino, each providing something unique to their role, which contrasts one another. Adams’ Cynthia is so perfect on the outside that it’s almost impossible to see her flaws, even though they’re still present. And Pino’s Larry is the exact opposite, a stepfather who almost seems like the indirect cause of Connor’s suicide, yet loving and compassionate enough, despite his faults, that he may have been the only one capable of putting him in rehab. And somehow, we end up sympathizing with him the more than anyone else.
Sometimes people’s crazy happens as a result of them trying to escape their own mistakes, which are agitated even more by not having anyone to listen to them. This film is all about the value of having someone there to listen; someone to make you feel not alone. Evan’s choice not to tell the truth was not driven by malice, but by empathy. It’s only after he starts benefiting from his secrets his popularity overshadowing Connor’s loss in the first place—that his moral decisions start to take a dip and the audience really starts to question his intent; when he himself stops listening to others is when he’s compromised his positive contribution.
Dear Evan Hansen explores a highly audacious concept, where the very moral dilemma at its core whether felt by the protagonist or the audience themselves inherently offers a lot of room to think and reflect. Connor’s death is a cautionary tale for Evan, even if he doesn’t see it that way initially. But it allows him to have a second chance, finding acceptance and meaning in his own life, and simultaneously discovering ways to put others first because of it. People often find hope in fallacies and mistruths, but this film greatly understands the value of that hope regardless, recognizing that you must still be able to separate it from the lies by which they are imprisoned. If you do a little searching, you just might find the real truth at the heart of it all.