Thursday, September 30, 2021

Film Review: Dear Evan Hansen


Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

Music is a shortcut to the soul.

For about 2 years I fooled myself into thinking that the show Glee had any merit because I was wrapped up in the music.  It took me a little while to realize that it was hollow Hollywood moralizing.

But music can also elevate.  I remember seeing The Greatest Showman and feeling slightly transported.  Each song moved me and lifted my spirits.  That movie has a special place in my memory because of that.

This brings us to Dear Evan Hansen.

This is movie musical based on the Broadway show.  Evan (Ben Platt) is a socially awkward high school senior dealing with severe anxiety and depression.  His therapist makes him write letters to himself that begin "Dear Evan Hansen."  His single-mother Heidi (Julianne Moore) is barely home because of work, but tells Evan to get someone to sign the cast on his arm he broke over the summer.  But not even his closest classmate Jared (Nik Dodani) will sign it.  On that first day Evan has a run in with a violent loner Connor (Colton Ryan).  Meanwhile Evan pines for Connor's sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). When Evan goes to print out one of his therapy letters later in the day, Connor appears to try and reconcile, even signing Evan's cast.   But when Connor finds Evan's letter and sees that in mentions Zoe, he gets angry and stalks off with the letter.  A few days later, Connor's parents Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) come to school and inform Evan that Connor has taken his own life.  The only thing they found on the body was Evan's letter, which they mistakenly believe was from Connor and conclude from this and Connor's name on Evan's cast that they were friends.  Evan tries to clear up the mistake, but he begins to watch the family, including Zoe, begin imploding from rage and grief.  So Evan begins to make up stories about Connor to ease their suffering.  This begins to snowball as Connor's story gains more notoriety and Evan gets closer and closer to Connor's family.

I began this review talking about the music because I think this will be a key factor in whether or not you enjoy this movie.  For me, I found the music, beautiful, emotional, and memorable.  There is an old saying that characters in musicals sing because there is no other way to express what they are feeling.  That is absolutely the case in Dear Evan Hansen.  Each song touches on the deep, sometimes awkward, burning emotions that you have in your teenage years.  Every passion and pain is heightened by a hyper-emotional awareness.  Halfway through the movie, Evan sings a song about Connor ("You Will Be Found") that goes viral on the internet.  It is not hard to believe that it would in the way it talks about darkness and loneliness with a sense of hope.

If you do not like the music, it may be a bit more difficult to connect with the characters.

Even still, if you were the awkward kid in high school there will be much that will be familiar with Evan's story.  The movie opens with Evan singing about how he feels on the outside of everything ("Waving Through A Window"), which how I spent a good portion of my high school experience: bullied by classmates, nervous all the time, pining for girls I was too shy to talk to... All of this was very familiar to me when I saw it on the screen.

Another thing that the movie does incredibly well is capture the spirit of the modern high school experience.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the level of anxiety and depression that students are struggling with today is way more than in my generation.  For some like Evan, their struggles are clearly seen.  But for others like the over-achieving Alana (Amandla Stenberg), it is hidden behind a peppy personality.  As a teacher, I have witnessed first-hand the overwhelming sense of alienation and the desperation for any kind of belonging.  It also captures a teenagers shallowness and depth of emotion at the same time.  Students who used to bully Connor post selfies with his memorialized locker.  But these same students can be seen incredibly vulnerable in their own loneliness and join things like "The Connor Project," which is designed to raise awareness of mental health.  But, like most teenagers, when the immediacy of the emotional moment passes, so does the hastily made commitments that come with them.  In my years working with teens I've noted that you have to give them a powerful emotional experience in order to break through the noise, but that all you have is the emotional experience, it will all fall apart because emotions fade.  Dear Evan Hansen captures that perfectly.

As a result, very few of the characters, even the side characters, come off as one-dimensional.  They may not be very likable in the end, but they all have layers.  I found this surprising and refreshing.  There are no real villains in the piece.  I'm also glad that they did not turn Connor into a misunderstood saint after he died.  Connor did a lot of bad things and so we are tempted to label him a monster.  But Connor also had hidden depths and we are tempted to label him a misunderstood victim.  The truth is that Connor struggled with both light and darkness and while his life was tragic, it is not easy to judge.  As a Catholic, I love that even when you struggle with the bad things a person does in this movie, you keep being reminded not to judge them.  And this is not done in a preachy way, but by showing you all of the different dimensions of the characters.  I could do without a few casual references to sexual immorality or drugs and alcohol, but 

Director Steven Chbosky does an excellent job of capturing the emotional moments in the visuals.  While Evan wanders the halls anonymously we feel his simultaneous alienation and claustrophobia.  He lets some little details in the background fill in the emotional logic of the scene.  

Most of the performances are very good.  Dever does an excellent job of keeping Zoe aloof and reserved.  I appreciate her wonderfully understated take on a young woman who is dealing with completely contradictory and inflammatory emotions.  Adams and Pino have a good chemistry, both in love and hate.  Moore plays her Heidi with a weary grace.  Stenberg also brings a great sense of charisma to her performance.

This brings us to Platt.  It would be an injustice to say that he does a bad job.  He plays Evan with depth and honesty.  But there is something just slightly off about his casting.  It is strange to say that he is too old, but he sort of is.  At 28, he just doesn't feel right for the awkward high school student.  And even Dever is only 3 years younger than him, it doesn't quite fit.  Perhaps it is the makeup they used on him to make him look younger, but only served to make him look... puffy.  You can tell Platt is doing his best and if he was just a bit younger I would be more connected.  But the oddness was like a hint of something sour in a sweet meal.  It isn't a deal breaker and the movie was still very moving, but I wish they could have fixed this.

My last gripe is that I prefer my musicals to end with a big climactic number.  That doesn't happen here.  The big show-stopper is right in the middle.  Instead, the movie ends on more a more somber note which is fitting for the type of story they are trying to tell.

I've written before that experience of most movies fade quickly after the credits crawl.  But Dear Evan Hansen is sticking with me still.  I would advise you if you are interested to check out the trailers for the movie and if the music at all sounds pleasing, check out this movie.

1 comment:

  1. I went to see this movie tonight, and was instantly transported back to my high school years. The music was spot on, as was the emotional Rollercoaster. I was happy to hear Platt's voice and emotion, but kept being reminded somehow of Buddy the Elf.....