Movie Review – Dear Evan Hansen (2021)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
The 2016 musical of the same name dominated the 71st Tony Awards. It was nominated nine times and won six, including Best Score, Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Musical. It made a star out of actor-singer, Ben Platt who at the age of 23 became the youngest person to win the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical. Because of this role, Platt would win a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Musical Performance when he performed the show’s signature song, “You Will Be Found” on NBC’s The Today Show. This film adaptation by Stephen Chbosky (Wonder and The Perks of Being a Wallflower) premiered at the 46th Toronto International Film Festival, which has been a launch pad for films to win the Oscar. The likelihood that he would win is pretty low, but if he did, Platt would become the youngest EGOT winner to date.
Platt stars as the titular Evan Hansen, a 17-year-old student who is entering his senior year in high school. He’s attending Westview High School in an unnamed state. The film was shot in California and Georgia. Yet, the original musical was said to be inspired by an incident in Pennsylvania. Evan is about to graduate but he’s still suffering from a social anxiety disorder, one that requires him to take prescription medication and attend therapy. He says he likes to write but it’s not clear if he aspires to be a writer. It’s not really clear what his plans are. He presumably wants to go to college, but there is a question of how he’ll afford it.
Julianne Moore (Still Alice and Boogie Nights) co-stars as Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mother. She’s a nurse who often works double shifts or isn’t always available at home. She’s a single mother after Evan’s father abandoned them. She and Evan are struggling a little bit, but they’re not poor. Evan proclaims to be poor, but, based on the house where he and Heidi live, they’re clearly middle-class, maybe lower middle-class but not poor to any serious degree. She is aware of Evan’s social anxiety and she’s vigilant and wants him to make friends and have relationships.
Evan does have one friend. Jared, played by Nik Dodani (Escape Room and Atypical), is a fellow senior of India heritage and is openly gay. Jared states that he’s not a friend but a “family friend,” which seemingly means that his mother is probably friends with Evan’s mother, so Jared and Evan are like an arranged friendship. Jared will talk to Evan in the hallway in between classes, but otherwise doesn’t associate with Evan. Jared is seen once at Evan’s house but we never see Jared sitting with Evan at the lunch table. It’s never explained though why Jared makes that distinction of being a “family friend.” By all measures, Jared is Evan’s friend, but the film doesn’t want to acknowledge that because it wants to contrive that Evan is a total loner, even though Jared’s existence in this narrative contradicts that.
Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart and Beautiful Boy) also co-stars as Zoe Murphy, a fellow high school student who seems to be younger. She’s probably a year younger, maybe two years. Yet, she’s the one with whom Evan has fallen in love or on whom he has a crush. She’s probably a junior, maybe a sophomore. People in high school often date others in lower classes or below them in their years, but it’s weird that no one calls out their age difference. It might not seem like much but even a year in terms of high school can be a lifetime. Zoe comes from a wealthy household. Like Evan, Zoe’s biological father isn’t in her life. Unlike Evan though, Zoe’s mother didn’t stay single. Zoe’s mother instead married a man and went on to live a wealthy life.
She’s otherwise well-adjusted. The only issue in Zoe’s family is her late brother, who was a senior at the same school. Zoe’s brother is Connor Murphy, played by Colton Ryan. Once his senior year starts, Connor is only around a day or so before he commits suicide. It’s never said how or where, but Connor kills himself. It’s suggested that Connor had a drug or substance abuse problem. He could have had an accidental overdose. We don’t know. We don’t learn this fact until the end of the film but apparently, Connor was in rehab. This information isn’t relayed until the end because the film wants to depict Connor as a friendless loner akin to Evan, but if he were doing drugs, Connor would have been getting his drugs from somewhere. Often, drug addicts have a network of friends who enable them to some extent. If he went to rehab, then it’s more than likely he had a sponsor. No, a sponsor isn’t the same as a friend, but there would have been people who knew Connor in rehab.
Amy Adams (American Hustle and Enchanted) co-stars as Cynthia Murphy, the mother to Connor. She, along with her husband, Larry Mora, played by Danny Pino (Mayans M.C. and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), are desperate to find or connect with anyone who was friends with their son. Yet, investigating Connor’s life, in terms of his rehab or other things, is something they seemingly don’t do, even though it is mentioned that they had access to Connor’s cell phone and the contacts in it. One assumes that they did investigate and found nothing. However, at the end of the film, Evan does a cursory investigation and finds relationships that Connor had.
Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give and The Hunger Games) plays Alana Beck, a fellow student who claims to have known Connor. There seems to be a disconnect because Alana doesn’t know Connor’s parents and seemingly has no contact with them. Connor’s parents are desperate to know anyone who was friends with their son. They latch onto Evan, due to a mistake and then a lie that Evan doesn’t dispute, but it’s odd that Alana is a blind-spot for Cynthia and Larry. It’s odd that Alana herself wouldn’t insist on meeting Connor’s parents.
Instead of being about people investigating and trying to learn about someone who has died, someone they ignored or overlooked, as a way of exploring the idea of people not appreciating something until it’s gone, the film becomes about Evan’s desire to ingratiate himself into a wealthy family. On the surface, Evan tries to relieve Connor’s family of their grief by presenting them with a more positive, if false view of who Connor was. It’s later intimated that Evan’s motives might be somewhat selfish. It’s a way to get him closer to Zoe with whom he secretly loves. It’s also a way to get him closer to Connor’s parents who seem more appealing to him than his single mom. It’s also a way to get him access to the wealth of Connor’s family.
Chbosky wrote the adaptations for Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Rent (2005), so he has experience with musicals that don’t pop off the screen with that much excitement or cleverness. It becomes more of a matter if one likes the songs and the people singing them. Platt proves here that he’s an amazing singer and really gives the performance of the songs here 110-percent. The various actors who perform songs are good as well with the standout among them being Julianne Moore whose performance of the song “So Big / So Small” is amazing and had me tearing up.
The songwriters are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, aka Pasek and Paul. They’re good songwriters. They even won an Oscar for songwriting in La La Land (2016). I didn’t appreciate La La Land namely because I didn’t think the actors in that film did justice to the songs. Basically, I didn’t think they could sing or dance that well. However, Platt can sing his butt off and really belts out these songs in amazing fashion. I also find it great that Platt is the lead, given that he is openly gay and the film deals with queer themes like social isolation, hidden identity and suicidal ideations. Ultimately, I feel that the film squanders opportunities to embrace other queer themes like homo-social friendships more fully.
Rated PG-13 for material involving suicide, brief strong language and suggestive reference.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 17 mins.