Dear Evan Hansen Film Review: Anonymous No More

Despite the controversial casting at the centre of the film, Dear Evan Hansen is just as emotional and impactful as its source material

Starring Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino, Julianne Moore, and Amy Adams

Adapting a beloved musical to film is no short order. It’s nigh-on impossible to satisfy every fan of the source material. Every viewer seems to have their own interpretation; their own concept of the conceptual language. While there is a temptation to merely reproduce what is on stage for the screen (such as the filmed stage versions of Hamilton or Come From Away – who wisely utilise stunning cinematography to elevate the material away from feeling stagnant or far removed), stage musicals are simply constructed differently to a typical feature film.

Stage musicals have the freedom of a longer amount of time to develop multiple characters. Songs allow for greater character exploration than can be typically afforded within a film, which must balance introspection with pace and and a certain amount of tension. To simply copy a musical exactly onto screen might create a film that appeared to lack focus or a clear narrative drive. This is one of the problems that Camila Cabello’s Cinderella fell into (of which there are depressingly many), which is trying to give too much focus to too many different characters and as a result its narrative centre was unclear. Meanwhile, the film adaptation of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie excelled on this front. Director Jonathan Butterell had a clear sense of the focus of his story and geared everything else around that focal point. Anything that didn’t serve this was cut, or retooled. Jamie and his growth in confidence was the heart of that movie, and even songs which Jamie didn’t sing, such as “He’s My Boy” or “It Means Beautiful” were tailored towards Jamie, and not used as an opportunity to deepen or expand upon his mother or Priti’s characters. While some may claim that that is a missed opportunity, it makes the overall output far more streamlined and cohesive.

For the uninitiated, Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of a depressed and anxious teenage boy, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt), who is tasked by his therapist to write himself letters, encouraging a more positive mindset. Unfortunately, at school, a boy Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) finds and takes one of these letters. When he later commits suicide with this letter on him, it is misinterpreted as a suicide note. His parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) believe this a sign that Evan and Connor must have been secret friends and, clearly desperate for some comfort, and with Evan lacking social tools, he soon finds himself swept up in a lie that he becomes increasingly more desperate to conceal, especially when it leads to him becoming close to the girl of his dreams, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who just so happens to be Connor’s sister. Pretty standard coming-of-age stuff, right?

Originally written by duo Benji Pasek and Justin Paul with book writer Steven Levenson as a Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen has been a substantial breakout hit in the past decade. While perhaps not reaching as stratospheric heights as Hamilton (because, what does?), Dear Evan Hansen was nominated for nine Tony Awards and eventually won six, including Best Actor for Ben Platt, Best Featured Actress for Rachel Bay Jones, Best Musical and Best Score. All three of these creatives return for the film adaptation, with Pasek and Paul writing two new songs “The Anonymous Ones”, for Amandla Stenberg’s Alana (who also collaborated on writing the track) and “A Little Closer”, as a sweet ending note for Connor Murphy.

With director Stephen Chbosky, the creative time wisely do not take the stage show as gospel, cutting four fan favourite songs from the score. While “Anybody Have a Map”, “Good For You”, “To Break in a Glove” and “Disappear” are all beautiful songs (it seems practically impossible for Pasek and Paul – also of The Greatest Showman fame – to craft a tune anything other than sickeningly entrancing), it is easy to appreciate why these were surplus to requirements. Heidi (Julianne Moore), Cynthia, Larry, Zoe, Jared, nor even Alana, who gets her own solo, are not the main characters in this story. Evan is, and the film is unapologetic about that. He receives the vast majority of the solo moments and, while certain cynics may attribute this to ego, each of Evan’s solos do propel the narrative forward in meaningful ways. However, including these cut songs would merely have detracted from the narrative that this version of the story is trying to tell.

Whether or not Dear Evan Hansen succeeds and fails is, firstly, subjective. The glory of our universe is that no two life forms are exactly identical. Even identical twins, to our current scientific understanding, do not have a singular controlling force. However, it is important to bear in mind what story Dear Evan Hansen is actually trying to tell. On the surface, there’s a socially outcast teenager, with diagnosed depression and anxiety, who gets caught up in a tangled web of lies because it finally provides him with a sense of belonging and normalcy. To word it in this way is to make Dear Evan Hansen’s message seem too specific; too isolated within just this story. On top of that, there’s the overriding message “You Will Be Found”, and the looming spectre of teen suicide. Additionally, Evan’s lies ultimately serve to alienate and devastate those closest to him in ways that he is unable to predict. Is Dear Evan Hansen a damning indictment of lying? Some sort of modern fable? Not quite. After all, Evan’s lying is not maliciously motivated at its onset, but rather borne from his desire not to disappoint people and to be accepted. Moreover, lying to make a bereft, grieving woman happier about her son who recently committed suicide would be tricky for most teenagers to navigate let alone one with debilitating social anxiety.

At its heart, despite the lies that form the foundation of Evan’s journey, Dear Evan Hansen can be considered to be about hope and the tremendous power and unity that can come from that. Even though Evan’s story about his and Connor’s friendship is ultimately a falsehood, that doesn’t make the effect upon Connor’s family any less real.

The film takes this idea even further. By lending depth to both Connor (Colton Ryan) and Alana (Amandla Stenberg), Dear Evan Hansen demonstrates the strength of community and communication. While the film initially starts with musical communication being only Evan’s, as the narrative snowballs, other characters also share this vocabulary. While it initially seemed as if this was just Evan’s different way of emoting, by lending this to more characters as the film continues, it makes a clear link between what Evan perceives to be his insular world to some sort of commonality to how other characters think. Alana being honest about her own mental health struggles and the medications that she’s taking, as well as her rationale for starting the Connor Project helps to illustrate the healing effect of having a community. Through “The Anonymous Ones”, the audience are introduced to the idea that there are many others who are just like Evan. Basing the latter part of this musical number at the same time as Evan singing “Waving Through a Window” also serves to demonstrate the fact that, while Evan thinks that he is alone, there are many others just like him who you wouldn’t predict. Within the third act, even Evan acknowledges this, wishing that he had been able to get to know Connor better. The dialogue surrounding mental health throughout the film is expanded, and touches all of the characters to differing degrees.

Overall, the creatives have used this opportunity to add more depth to their message. Adding to Alana’s character, no doubt helped by the wonderful performance of Amandla Stenberg, as well as a third act, helps to redeem Evan slightly more than is possible within the constraints of a musical. Yet, at no point does the film try to excuse Evan’s behaviour. It does not force the audience to forgive him, nor does it posit that what he did was okay.

However, it is easier to see within the context of the movie how everything unravels quite so spectacularly. Amy Adams’ performance as grieving mother Cynthia really helps show her desperation and her need to latch onto Evan. She does manage to use him as a surrogate son and care for him in a way that she was unable to with Connor. It is rather telling that the film elects to not show the audience any of the Murphys’ home life before Connor’s suicide. The Cynthia that the audience is introduced to is coloured by her grief, her desire to latch on to a hidden part of her son that somebody else saw. The desire to see something other than what she did. Something to reinforce within herself that there was something redeemable; something that she saw, and something that she had faith in. Above anything else, she doesn’t want to be proved wrong about her own child. Evan provides her with that and, within those early scenes, her desperation for Evan’s story to be true helps plaster over any of the cracks within his storytelling. In fact, she almost provides him with the answers herself, giving him enough of Connor for him to craft his own narrative.

As for Evan, it’s this desperation and this need which proves beneficial for him too. Suddenly, he is in an environment in which everybody is hanging on every word, and where his words have the power to improve things around them, instead of being destructive. He receives love, and adoration, and that proves addictive. Within the Murphys’ home, the change in medium to film makes even the smallest moments fly. A simple, throwaway line from Cynthia, as the Murphys settle into domesticity is “I’m so glad you’re here”. A flippant comment, but it’s apparent from Evan’s face how deeply that struck.

In the stage musical, Evan sings “I guess I thought I could be part of this”. The way that Evan gets seduced into the Murphys’ lives is trickier to play to the stalls, but with this format, his journey into their lives is far more cleanly portrayed. When Heidi says “these people think that you are their son”, within the musical, that is not necessarily apparent. That is more than clear here, however.

Of course, it would be almost impossible to review this film without acknowledging the visibly aged elephant in the room. Even before the film was released, the casting of Ben Platt raised more than a few eyebrows. Sure, he had been with the musical since its workshopping stage and received a Tony for his performance. He was a large part of crafting the character of Evan and it is understandable why the creatives would want him to be involved in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, despite reportedly losing 18 pounds and shaving 3 times a day (alright, Ben Platt, show off your testosterone, why don’t you? – Sincerely, Me, who hasn’t shaved in two weeks and nobody has noticed), there is no conceivable way that Mr Platt could be anything other than in his late twenties. Unfortunately, Ben Platt looks his age. He is not a youthful 28, and no amount of shaving is going to conceal that.

It was a predictable outcome. Any human being with eyes could probably have realised this. However, it doesn’t hurt that Ben Platt’s father was a producer for the film. It is a shame, really, because it does mean that the vast majority of the press coverage of this film is dominated by this unfortunate casting blunder, not to mention social media ire at Ben Platt’s less-than-humble response to casting criticism by making it clear that without him the film would never have been made and that there is nobody who could play Evan like him. That is, in fact, a subject for a post in itself, for there is a lot to unpack within that remark, but perhaps Mr Platt’s social media representative should let him know that the way to get people to watch his film is not to annoy people. That seems like common sense, but as a primary school teacher I am frequently surprised by the overwhelming dearth of intelligence on this planet.

If one is able to look past Platt’s visage, his performance is, quite simply, sensational. You truly believe and feel every single word that he sings. As he belts out the climax of “Word Fail”, you visibly see Evan break and crumble. A brilliant dramatic performer, he also delivers on the comic timing as well as navigating Evan’s changing demeanour throughout the film without compromising or being insensitive towards those with mental illness.

Platt is supported by Julianne Moore, whose “So Big / So Small”, while not the best vocal performance, is one of the most moving parts of the film, and this heartening moment alone is enough to justify the cutting of “Good For You”. Amy Adams is spectacular as Cynthia, delivering multiple levels of nuance to a part which certainly has the potential to fall into a myriad number of tropes. Without her performance, Evan’s motivation would make drastically less sense than it does. Danny Pino’s Larry Murphy – wait no, I mean Mora, apparently – is also a good addition, though the change to stepdad seems unnecessary. Having said that, it’s one small moment with Larry which will cause a tear in even the most hardened of people.

Kaitlyn Dever is brilliant as Zoe, finding the right balance between naive and hopeful and cynical and jaded. Even though Platt conceivably looks as if he could be her caregiver, their romance still has oodles of chemistry. Nik Dodani is funny as Jared Kalwani, a character who is changed significantly from their stage persona, but the added dose of relatable representation is always appreciated. For her part, Amandla Stenberg does a brilliant turn as Alana Beck, who is best described as grating within the musical and mostly seems like an attention seeker. However, this Alana is symbolic of the greater picture that the film is connecting us too, something which is helped by Colton Ryan’s Connor Murphy, who elevates Connor’s unpredictability from the stage show while “Sincerely, Me” is a standout moment.

On top of this is Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s gorgeous soundtrack. Having previously provided the music for The Greatest Showman, Dear Evan Hansen‘s songs sound even more impactful with a thicker, more ferociously momentous score.

Ultimately, comparison is the thief of joy. Dear Evan Hansen the film is never going to match exactly the musical. There are elements which are changed, elements that are removed, and those which are added. Does that make the film version any less valid a piece of art? Absolutely not. The story that is told within the world of Dear Evan Hansen the film is a different universe to that of the stage show, which by the nature of its very staging is set in an isolated, formless abyss. The film takes Evan’s story and displaces it into the real world, linking it to mental health and an uplifting tale of hope. It takes serious subject matter without losing its own sense of levity, while boasting an incredible soundtrack and phenomenal cast. Despite what many reviewers have published online, this story is just as impactful as it ever was, even though there is a 28-year-old trespassing on public school grounds.

Dear Evan Hansen was released in cinemas on October 22nd 2021.

Dear Evan Hansen has now reopened on the West End and is accepting bookings until 13th February 2022. Tickets can be booked here.

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