Movie Review: Dear Evan Hansen

Covid has not been kind to movie musicals. The Lin-Manuel Miranda tribute to his roots, IN THE HEIGHTS, bombed at the box office when it was released back in June. (I liked the film.) A new, “woke” take on CINDERELLA starring pop singer Camila Cabello came out at the beginning of September and although it was reportedly the most-watched streaming movie over the Labor Day weekend in the US, the critics have not been overly kind. (I hated it.) EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE landed on Amazon Prime Video just over a week ago. It has been receiving warm reviews but few people, including me, have watched it. Also arriving at the same time was DEAR EVAN HANSEN. In case you haven’t heard, it’s being slayed by the critics. But is their criticism justified?

Adapted from the six-time Tony-award winning play of the same name, DEAR EVAN HANSEN tells the coming-of-age story of a high school senior (played by Ben Platt, the PITCH PERFECT films) who suffers from social anxiety. As part of his therapy, he writes life-affirming letters to himself. Early in the school year, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a troubled boy in his year, intercepts one of Evan’s letters and decides to keep it to harass Evan. Connor also scrawls his name across the cast on Evan’s arm saying, “Now we can both pretend we have friends.” A few days later Connor commits suicide and his parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams, HILLBILLY ELEGY ; VICE; ARRIVAL; AMERICAN HUSTLE) and Larry (Danny Pino, TV’s LAW & ORDER: SVU) find the letter. Thinking that Connor had written it to Evan just prior to his death, they ask Evan about his relationship to their son. Evan, not wanting to shatter their belief that their son had a friend, concocts a lie about their relationship. Soothing their grief, Evan grows close to the Murphys and to their daughter Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, BOOKSMART; BEAUTIFUL BOY; SHORT TERM 12; THE SPECTACULAR NOW), whom he worships from afar. When word goes around the school that Evan and Colton were friends, Evan’s popularity grows and he finds himself telling lie after lie to maintain the illusion. Eventually, he is forced to come clean and his new-found world comes crashing down upon him.

Critics are hating on this film for two reasons — the story and Ben Platt. Let me deal with them in order. Quite simply, Evan Hansen is a creep. Yes, he’s 17 years old and 17-year-olds do stupid things but what Evan does to the Murphys is pretty unconscionable. One can argue that he gets caught up in the moment but his motivation for lying is not only to help Cynthia and Larry find some comfort, it’s to serve is own self-interests too. He wants to feel noticed and he sees it as an avenue to get close to Zoe. Each time when he has the opportunity to set things right, he makes the wrong choice. Compare his behaviour to fellow student Alana (Amandla Sternberg, THE HATE U GIVE; THE DARKEST MINDS). She has anxiety issues too, but she deals with them by putting herself out there. Evan deals with his anxiety by hiding and then whining that he’s invisible. I’m with the critics on this one. I don’t understand why this has been such a successful play. Yes, it deals with teenage depression and loneliness head on, which is great, but Evan is a pretty poor poster child for raising awareness of a very real problem.

Next comes the issue of Platt. I’m sure that when Hollywood decided to greenlight the movie, casting Platt seemed like the obvious choice to play Evan. After all, he originated the role on Broadway; he won a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy for his performance; and he’s got a beautiful singing voice. The problem is that he’s now 28 and no amount of slouching, no perm and no wardrobe of striped polo shirts is going to convince moviegoing audiences that he’s a teenager. Platt has countered that argument saying that the actors in the movie version of GREASE weren’t teenagers either and no one seemed to mind that. He’s right. John Travolta was 24 at the time and Olivia Newton-John was pushing 30. Stockard Channing, who played Rizzo, was 34! The difference between then (1978) and now may come down to two factors: First, audiences are more sophisticated today and, by extension, less forgiving; and second, high definition photography makes it that much harder today to hide a furled brow, which is probably why so many actors turn to Botox. Watching Evan sing to Zoe, it’s hard not to see a grown man perving on a vulnerable teenager. Granted, Dever is 24 but at least she looks like she could be a teenager. The other problem in casting Platt is that he was singing to the back row. He’s a stage actor; not a screen actor.

While I somewhat agree with the critics on Platt too, I actually didn’t hate the film. I’ll even go as far as saying that I’m more up about it than down. If you can forget for a few hours that the character we’re supposed to feel empathy for is deeply flawed and that a 28-year-old actor is playing him, you might just enjoy it. The show-stopping number, “You Will Be Found”, is sure to bring a lump to your throat, the performances are all good and Ben Platt really does have a beautiful singing voice.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9th and hit the cinemas in the US on the 24th. There’s no word on when or if the film will come to Hong Kong.

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