Melodrama: the Musical! Dear Evan Hansen, based on the Tony award winning musical by the same name, is a movie for people who have struggled with social anxiety or depression, like musicals in general, or were unpopular in high school. So, pretty much everyone who was a member of the Drama Club. One of the most highly anticipated movies of 2021, this landmark Broadway musical loses much of its pizzaz once adapted for the screen. Every decade, there comes a time when Broadway musical adaptations are all the rage, but some stories simply work better on stage than screen. Not having seen the stage production, I cannot comment on elements that were lost, but it strikes me as a story that simply works better when performed live than captured on celluloid. Dear Evan Hansen is an emotionally manipulative derivative movie musical in the vein of 13 Reasons Why. But I have to say, even the dialogue in the aforementioned titular young adult TV series was more thoughtful. For all the film’s desperate desire to depict a socially-relevant, tough subject matter, it plays off as superficial virtue signaling whose veneer is merely two-dimensional.
Evan Hansen is an anxious, isolated high-school student who’s aching for understanding and belonging amid the chaos and cruelty of the social media age. He soon embarks on a journey of self-discovery when a letter he wrote for a writing exercise falls into the hands of a grieving couple whose son took his own life.
Much of the talent from the Broadway musical is carried over into the film. Most notably, actor Ben Platt, who plays the title character Evan Hansen. Let’s get the obvious out of the way. There’s been some skepticism and hate surrounding the movie ever since the trailer dropped, mainly because Ben Platt (27) is playing a high school student. Is it distracting? Very. But once you get past it, he does deliver a good performance. Obviously, he knows this character well, much better than the movie knows itself. Moreover, Julianne Moore and Amy Adams also deliver great performances as the mothers of Evan and Connor (the deceased boy), respectively. In addition to our lead and supporting actors, the film pulled from film industry talent as well in front of and behind the camera.
Also on board is Stephen Chbosky, director of acclaimed coming of age films The Perks of being a Wallflower and Wonder but he doesn’t bring that same level of thoughtfulness to this movie. Which was perhaps an insurmountable task not only because of the hype from the musical, but also because it’s such a heavy subject to touch upon. There are some interesting visual choices and innovative techniques like the way it portrays the internet but the emotions don’t always hit right. This film rides a fine line between drama and comedy and sometimes overshoots by having some scenes be too sappy and over dramatic and other scenes that make light of sensitive subjects like suicide, which might be off putting to some people.Perhaps he was strong-armed by the Broadway producers to execute scenes a particular way, but we can only speculate as to why he doesn’t seem to care as much about these characters as he did with his other young adult/coming of age films.
The well-known songs from the musical were certainly the highlight for audiences. Fortunately, the director chose to provide sufficient space between songs in order to allow for an emotional reset. Whereas the show-stopping numbers are usually performed with gusto, these songs were much more subtle. And like musical numbers should, each piece sufficiently moved the melodramatic plot forward. The amount of musical numbers isn’t a whole lot and none are these big showy sequences with choreography, but I like that. I’m not sure if the stage performance is like that, but the lowkey nature of those numbers fits well.
The film also threads a fine line between drama and comedy which makes it engaging but might also be off putting for some because it at times makes light of sensitive subjects like suicide.
The characters are not completely surface level but seem to represent the high school stereotypes of the 2010s (and 2020s so far); basically what the typical jocks, nerds, etc. were to generations past. Furthermore, this movie tries to paint a picture of the 2010s high school landscape, similar to what films like Mean Girls did for generations past, but ultimately falls short. The characters are not entirely two dimensional and different from those familiar archetypes of previous decades and certainly more “diverse.” For example, the popular, successful girl is shown to have some depth and the protagonist nerdy not really-friend makes an off hand remark which tells us he is gay they still mostly come off as a new set of stereotypes to populate the Gen Z high school.
All in all this movie still tries to tell a somewhat original story with memorable songs and performances. And it delivers a positive message about connection, which is something that everybody, not just young people, needs. This is especially true in these times. So, if this films sounds like something you’d enjoy then go see it; if it doesn’t, then don’t.
This review was written by Leon Zitz, German contributor to the R.L. Terry ReelView.