‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Review: Superb Performances Elevate Melancholy, Macabre Musical
Filled with a murderer’s row of talented musical actors all chewing into meaty roles while singing their hearts out, Dear Evan Hansen is an ode to sincerity even while telling a tale of a most-insincere protagonist. Stephen Chbosky’s previous adaptation, Wonder, was essentially about the choice between being nice and being kind, and this film plays in a similar sandbox. The film offers that film’s blanket of empathy to all its characters, even some who may not deserve it, offering every major player a chance to sing their feelings and make a case as to why they matter. That it’s in service of a story that could have easily been a dark comedy, and sometimes plays as such, is a tricky balancing act. I’m not sure it pulls it off, but there is grace in its attempt.
In the film’s introductory song, the first thing you’ll notice is that A) 28-year-old Platt looks a little old to be playing a high schooler, and B) Platt has a killer set of pipes. It’s not like anyone in this cast is young enough to attend high school. The age difference between himself and, say, Kaitlyn Dever (she turns 25 in December) is far smaller than, say, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (19) and Darren Barnet (30) in Netflix’s terrific episodic Never Have I Ever. There are moments where Evan’s isolation is enhanced by the visual discrepancy, and others where it looks like a spin-off of Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan. I’m not going to argue the filmmakers (including producer Marc Platt, father of the star) shouldn’t have found a more youthful-looking 22-year-old, but it’s only a deal-breaker if you let it be.
Based on the 2016 Tony-winning Broadway show, and again starring Ben Platt in the title role, Dear Evan Hansen is almost a dare or a challenge to a critical establishment that claims to want new or different cinematic entertainments even as it prefers to snark such offerings to death for social media validation. Dear Evan Hansen is just a movie about a single set of characters underdoing a singular and unlikely journey. That movie concerns Evan (Platt), who suffers from social anxiety and the crippling loneliness that comes with being, well, alone in high school. Through circumstances that make a grim Rube Goldberg-level sense, a mocking signature on his cast and a stolen letter to himself creates a fiction when that thief dies by suicide, leaving the young man’s grieving parents to think that he and Evan were friends.
I can’t speak to the original play. Still, Steven Levenson’s adaptation of his show creates an unlikely scenario whereby young Evan doesn’t so much invent this fiction, at least not initially, but instead has his initial denials ignored by an anguished family and eventually goes along with what he thinks will be a “okay, just this once and be done with it” façade. If you’ve seen World’s Greatest Dad, which may be Robin Williams’ best screen comedy, you know some of the broad strokes as a fiction concerning the death of a high schooler becomes a cultural event into which everyone imprints their feelings. Bobcat Goldthwait’s gem was a pitch-black societal study of how strangers find a way to make every minor tragedy into a self-involved cultural event. Dear Evan Hansen has similar criticisms in mind.
This film notes the social good that decent, idealistic people get from believing this (admittedly secular and apolitical) falsehood. It concurrently condemns how society performatively latches onto a “faith in humanity restored” blip in time before moving on to the next viral tragedy. We don’t need to be told that folks have stopped caring, as a shot of the late student’s locker decorated with old and dead roses is enough. The progression of Evan’s big lie, from an awkward dinner with the late Conner’s parents to fabricated emails to a big speech in front of the whole school, has a grueling Venus flytrap quality, where Evan is less attempting to prolong the con than patronizing interested parties just one more time. To paraphrase The Godfather part III, just when Evan thinks he’s out, he gets pulled back in.
In word and in song (courtesy of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), the picture doesn’t let Evan off the moral hook. It also expects its audience not to require a yellow highlighter. The supporting cast all get their moments of righteous anger and impolite grief sans judgment. The entire Murphy family gets to mourn in their complicated way in the searing “Requiem,” The film expects you to understand that Amandla Stenberg being cast as a secretly medicated overachiever (who kinda-sorta knew the dearly departed) always needing to appear on-task and on the ball is not simple race-blind casting. Amy Adams crushes a challenging role as a grieving mother stuck in the early stages of grief, while Dever is terrific as Conner’s sister Zoe. The latter resents now being defined by the actions of her long-troubled older brother.
Even the late Conner (Colton Ryan) gets a ghoulishly funny post-mortem musical number as he and Evan sing and dance about their fictional friendship. Equally tricky, if less conventionally amusing, is a song during which Evan confesses his feelings for Zoe under the guise of detailing what Conner “said” about her. Nik Dodani, who was quite good in Escape Room and may have a bright future in Democratic politics, plays an accomplice and thus provides an external reminder that much of what we’re seeing is a lie. Oh, and Julianne Moore plays Evan’s working poor single mother, doing the best she can and seeing her son’s time and admiration floating off to the Murphys’ conventionally middle-class nuclear family unit. Moore’s climactic number plays like “What if The Sixth Sense were a musical?” and I mean that as a compliment.
Yes, the story is about a kid who takes advantage of a grieving family, and yes, the lead actor looks older than he should, especially in a story somewhat banking on youthful naivety. But perfect is not the enemy of good. Platt is quite good here, while the supporting cast is spectacular throughout. The songs feature an unapologetic melancholy and sincerity that works even with the extra layer of untruth beneath the surface. At the same time, the screenplay presents our anti-hero as less a diabolical conman (he’s not Tom Ripley) and more an emotionally conflicted kid who can’t say “No,” to a personally beneficial lie. Suppose we want unique movies and complex characters behind just nostalgia-coated IP exploitations. In that case, we need to let characters do and say incorrect things, especially in service of an emotional arc.
Dear Evan Hansen is an engaging and entertaining passion play, strengthened by a deluge of onscreen talent and subtly directed in a way that opens up the play without calling attention to its stage-bound roots. We can debate the “problematic” nature of the core narrative and how it does or doesn’t address mental illness among today’s high schoolers. Still, I’d argue the film is specific enough to not automatically qualify as a “one film to represent all” screed. While Platt reprising his Tony-winning role may be an unforced error, it’s not a fatal one. As a singular feature film, it offers terrific performances, excellent vocals and a nuanced narrative that eventually becomes a treatise about, yes, the difference between being “nice” (telling people what they want to hear) and being “kind” (telling people what they need to hear).