**1/2 out of ****
(for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive sexual references)
Released: September 24, 2021
Runtime: 137 minutes
Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Danny Pino, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan
(Note: while this review doesn’t examine the whole plot in detail, it does wade a bit into what some may consider spoiler territory, including a reference to a change near the end.)
Live theatre can cover a multitude of melodrama, allowing dramatic license and narrative leaps to ring credible. The screen, big or small, isn’t as forgiving, and Dear Evan Hansen is probably the clearest example of that I’ve seen.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s something wrong with the source material that’s finally being exposed. That’s not the issue here. Follow me as I do my best to explain why the award-winning stage production works while the award-desperate movie doesn’t.
Playing like an Afterschool Musical, Dear Evan Hansen’s transition from stage to screen is one of the more bungled efforts of its kind. Some have suggested that it exposes the stark flaws inherent to the source material but, having experienced the original Broadway production and cast, I’d disagree. (So would a worthy stack of Tony Awards including Best Musical, a long list of critical plaudits that most shows could only dream of, and the “Fansen” fandom that made the show a pop culture sensation.)
The core problem isn’t the material. It’s the medium.
More specifically, it’s the difference between Broadway creatives who understood how to make it work for the stage compared to their Hollywood counterparts who completely miscalculated it for the screen.
The former brought the material to compelling life through theatrical invention and creative technical savvy, all of which were designed for a live experience unfolding right in front of you, one that often became overwhelming in the best way (in part because you’re literally in the same room and space as people, albeit very gifted actors, experiencing a breakdown from deep psychic trauma).
Film director Stephen Chbosky, however, applies an uninspired realism and dearth of imagination that undercuts rather than overwhelms, revealing a profound misunderstanding of cinematic language and how audiences respond to it.
If anything, it took the addition of songs to show just how overrated his praised debut The Perks of Being a Wallflower was, another sulking coming-of-age teen drama that peddles more in clichés than credibility.
Even so, the power of the material and its songs still reverberate. They’re too good not to, as is star Ben Platt who powerfully reprises his Tony-winning performance here, regardless of how old he may look. (His age is an issue, to be sure, but it’s not as glaring or egregious as the entire cast of Grease).
As a result, when you combine what works with what doesn’t, Dear Evan Hansen The Movie becomes a bizarre, discordant clash of resonant emotion and tone-deaf dramaturgy.
The story at the heart of Dear Evan Hansen is a tricky one to tell. The needle it’s trying to thread would be difficult in any medium, which is why praise for the Broadway production is so understandable; it threaded that needle! How it’s put together genuinely matters, and that’s where the movie fails.
The gist of the story is this: due to initial misunderstandings beyond his control, Evan Hansen – an anxious, insecure, unpopular high school loner – becomes trapped in a lie of his own making. It begins with the suicide of a fellow student who’d been ostracized for his own angry, brooding, anti-social behavior, and escalates when that student’s family mistakes Evan as a close friend who could help them understand their distant, depressed, now-deceased son – and he’s too scared to tell them otherwise, not wanting to further crush their grieving hearts.
That well-meaning (if also self-serving) lie then spirals out of control when a student activist starts a project to raise awareness about mental health and the cause goes viral. Yet the cause is all built on a lie. Or, worse yet, an ever-increasing list of lies that Evan feels compelled to make and maintain.
One of the amazing things about the Broadway production (directed by Michael Greif) was how it keeps stacking the deck of cards that are Evan’s bad decisions. It’s nerve-wracking as the stack continues to get higher and higher without ever actually falling until, at the right time and in the right way and for the most gut-wrenching reasons, they all finally do.
Where the movie misfires is that Chbosky wasn’t able to devise a comparable cinematic approach to properly stacking those cards. As a result, the cards keep falling every time he tries to stack them because we’re not buying how he’s stacking them. It’s the same cards that are stacked in the stage production, so they’re not the issue here. The stacker is.
Chbosky’s miscalculations come in tone, and tone succeeds or fails on artistic choices and vision (or lack thereof). For this story and this musical, realistic naturalism is the wrong foundation but that’s precisely the one that Chbosky chose.
Theatrical craft is what’s needed, even in the cinematic frame, something that directors like Bob Fosse (Cabaret) and Sam Mendes (American Beauty) have understood when they made their Oscar-winning jumps from theatre to movies, often opting for stage lighting techniques, visual abstractions, and surreal interludes to communicate subtext and psychology. By and large, Chbosky simply documents the narrative.
It may seem antithetical to lean into artifice in order to get to the heart of something that’s raw and real, but when the material calls for it (like most musicals inherently do) going naturalistic as Chbosky does can make effective material suddenly feel weird, creepy, even gross. For the first two acts of Chbosky’s movie, that’s how Dear Evan Hansen often plays.
Other miscalculations in the adaptation are also to blame, most notably the pruning of key moments with parents, both the Murphys (the parents of the dead son Connor, played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino) and Heidi Hansen (Evan’s single-parent struggling-to-make-ends-meet mother, played by Julianne Moore). They’re still present through story – and Adams, Pino and Moore make the most of their moments – yet all but one of their songs has been excised.
The problem with that is, through those songs, the parents become the soul of the show (the mothers especially; they are the richest part of the stage show and, with Adams and Moore, remain essential here). It’s in them that the stakes are felt the most, and where the most damage could be done if the lies are exposed.
Thankfully, Heidi’s climactic “So Big / So Small” remains (and Moore nails it), but without the rest of their numbers (“Anybody Have A Map?”, “To Break In A Glove”, and “Good For You”) Dear Evan Hansen becomes more YA-centric and loses a substantial part of its emotional gravitas. The fact that you’ve got Amy Adams in a musical and all you hear her sing is one refrain in an ensemble piece (“Requiem”) is a problem in itself.
Some of that weight is maintained, thankfully, through Zoe Murphy, Connor’s sister who Evan has a crush on. The stakes are felt through her, if in different ways, and Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart, Short Term 12) raises them in the jaded resentment and fragile heartache she so powerfully carries.
But then again, it’s omissions that prove crucial, such as Evan’s imagined visions of Connor appearing to him. In the stage book, they helped to make sense and sympathy of Evan’s bad decisions. Here, they’re another vital theatrical license now gone.
One of the things lost with them is a better understanding of how Evan isn’t simply a selfish, opportunistic, cowardly liar, but a lonely, isolated, broken kid suffering from social anxiety who’s in way over his emotional and moral maturity. Instead, Chbosky tries to communicate that through having Platt maintain a forced hunched-shoulders posture throughout the course of the 2-plus hours.
Layering in some ironic subtext to the show’s pop-positivity could’ve gone a long way in making this work for the screen, as could have designing some of the more dramatic leaps to be more subtle. Those would’ve been the biggest risks to take, however, as they easily could’ve angered the musical’s most ardent, passionate acolytes.
As is, fans of the stage production will be forgiving (diehards especially), appreciating the general fidelity to the text, but first-timers much less so, with many likely left thinking “That’s it?” even as they find themselves wondering why they were so genuinely swept up by Benj Pasek’s and Justin Paul’s pop ballads and soaring anthems. (That songwriting duo went on to further acclaim with tunes for La La Land and The Greatest Showman.)
But here’s the deal: while the first two acts stumble, the third act still delivers, even here. That’s when the reckoning goes down, and the cast absolutely sells it. With the cards finally collapsed, Chbosky’s flat approach is no longer a liability. The secrets are finally being faced and confronted, and the strong ensemble work carries the show’s truth admirably to the end (including affecting scenes from Amandla Stenberg as the school activist, who makes what feels like a star-making turn as she sings the a certain-to-be Oscar-nominated new song “The Anonymous Ones” ).
Unfortunately, that final act doesn’t start until about 90 minutes in. By then, anyone without a previous attachment to the material may have given up on it all long before. But if you can give this movie the benefit of the doubt and just hang with it (as most Hansen fans will), the payoff comes.
The original show was never asking us to give Evan Hansen a pass for his bad decisions. Instead, it helped us to understand them. The stage show, to its credit and power, actually wanted us to feel conflicted on multiple levels.
The movie seems scared of that. The show wasn’t nervous or shy about Evan’s false posturing; that was a fundamental point of the piece! That’s where the story’s suspense and thematic depth are rooted.
Chbosky’s reliance on mawkish, surface-level tropes obscures all of that (as do his textual omissions), instead sending the message that we’re only to feel sorry for this hangdog spineless sad-sack. That simplicity makes everything feel off, even wrong. Chbosky’s style (or lack thereof) keeps trying to let Evan off the hook, but ultimately the story doesn’t.
To its credit, this adaptation adds a positive, necessary change near the end. In it, Evan makes attempts at atonement – private and genuine, not for public consumption – that are set to a new song. It helps smooth over the show’s original ending that ties things up a bit too quickly.
Yes, rose-colored sentimentality still defines this coda (which may cause the end to ring false for some) but, given the roller-coaster journey we’ve been through, it provides a necessary catharsis and, thankfully, a moral clarity.
Seeing Dear Evan Hansen on the stage (whether on Broadway, one of its official major-city satellite productions, or the touring show) remains the best way to experience and appreciate this phenomenon. But there’s value to this particular movie version, too, as it demonstrates how artistic interpretation is vital in the success or failure of written material, and that a quality script doesn’t necessarily lead to self-evident presentation.
Even if done unintentionally (like it was here), there’s merit in that, and it can lead to some interesting, productive conversations for those willing to have them.