MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Whenever a film based on a popular stage play is initially reviewed, it is compared to the original version. I did not see Dear Evan Hansen on stage, but I know that it was a musical that resonated with many youths and yount adults in the way a popular YA novel would. (Case in point: It was turned into a popular YA novel.) The songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman, La La Land) were tuneful and mostly centered on confessional and celebratory themes. The book by Steven Levenson focused on a teenager dealing with social anxiety that made interaction with classmates difficult. If you are in any way shy or awkward during adolescence, you can identify with Evan Hansen. (And quiet outsiders are generally the kind of people who lose themselves in YA novels and plays.)
Evan (Platt) goes to see a therapist (this happens offscreen) who suggests that he write letters to himself as a motivational device to see the possibilities of each day. When the film begins, Evan’s arm is in a cast after falling out of a tree. Due to his inabilty to connect with classmates, there are no signatures. One day in school he interacts with Conner (Colton Ryan), who is a bit of a bully. Since Evan has a secret crush on Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), Connor’s sister, he is emotionally between a rock and a hard place.
When Connor stumbles upon one of Evan’s letters, he angrily misreads it and storms away, taking the letter with him. Things take a tragic turn when Connor commits suicide (also offscreen). Connor’s mother and stepfather (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) discover the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter in Connor’s pocket and assume that the two boys were close friends. Since this misunderstanding opens the way for Evan to get closer to Zoe, he goes with it. Connor’s parents are also working through their grief and grow closer to Evan, while Evan’s mom (Moore) – a single parent – sees her son moving farther away. Add to this complicated stew the ways in which social media can influence a perosn’s reputation and you have the makings of a perceptive storyline.
It is also a troubling tale, since Evan is taking advantage of grief to make a move on a dead boy’s sister. I will defend this behavior as understandable since we are dealing with a person who is unsure of how to communicate. (And there is nothing more awkward than romantic feelings.) The film was blasted by most critics who criticized the movie for casting 27-year-old Ben Platt as Evan. Platt originated the role on Broadway. I think that the film stumbles in how it adapted the source material, but casting older actors to play teenagers is nothing new to films and television. It does seem that Platt is performing for a stage show rather than a film. His nervous posture, facial expressions, and haircut are too extreme for the closeup world of film. Director Chbosky isn’t sure how to open up a show that was mostly filled with moments of two people sharing feelings to one another. There is one big showstopper choreographed song early in the film (“Sincerely, Me”) and a stirring anthem at midpoint (“You Will Be Found”). After that, there is nowhere to go but down as further complications lead to revelations and sadness.
In spite of its shortcomings, Dear Evan Hansen opens up a world of conversation around the topics of mental health, authentic friendship, social media, and family. Like its characters, it’s messy and not always graceful, but there is real compassion and caring to be found, if you take the time to understand and to forgive.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: An empathetic and heartfelt film about loneliness and the need to belong.
Three pitchforks: Suicide exploited for deception; mild swearing; bullying; online harassment.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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