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#TIFF21 Review: Dear Evan Hansen (Gala Presentations)

September 11, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Stephen Chbosky’s big screen take on Dear Evan Hansen, the Broadway musical with songs by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul that swept the Tonys in 2017, is a pretty good stage to screen adaptation. Even if the material is not quite as impactful onscreen as it was onstage, Chbosky does a decent if admittedly flawed job of transferring the show’s tricky story to movie format.

The story centres around Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, reprising his Tony-winning role), who has been given an assignment from his therapist to write letters to himself as a form of encouragement. One of these letters gets taken at school by Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a troubled loner dealing with his own mental health issues. When Connor takes his own life, the letter ends up in the hands of his mother (Amy Adams) and stepfather (Danny Pino), who mistake it for a suicide note, and Evan for the best friend they never knew their son had.

Connor’s parents find comfort in the letter, and Evan gets caught up in the lie, even getting his family friend Jared (Nik Dodani) to help write fake emails to provide proof of his made up friendship with their son. Evan also has a secret crush on Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), and the letters allow him to finally get closer to her. But the lie really gets out of hand when classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) decides to start a memorial for Connor.

When the trailer first dropped for Dear Evan Hansen, people were caught up on how old Platt, now in his upper-20s, looks in the role. And he does look way too old to be playing a teenager, especially in the many closeups. But otherwise I thought his performance was good, and if you can suspend disbelief about his age, he is emotionally effective in the role of someone with extreme social anxiety.

Platt’s big numbers like “Waving Through a Window” (which directly opens the movie), “For Forever” and “You Will Be Found” still work to tug on the heartstrings, even if the illusion of the big dramatic moments being done in song perhaps doesn’t work quite as well on film as it did on the stage.

The supporting cast is key to the success of the film adaptation. Dever is a standout here, utilizing her gift for playing sullen teenagers to bring more depth to her role. Dodani is a natural fit for the comic relief role of Jared (who is openly gay in the film), and Stenberg is given more to do as Alana than the character was onstage. Adams gets some of the heaviest dramatic moments aside from Platt. Finally, there’s Julianne Moore as Evan’s single mother. While she only has a handful of scenes, Moore makes the most of her screen time, including her one emotional song number at the end.

If you found the story on stage to be inherently problematic, then you will likely feel the same way about the movie version as well. Connor himself still feels somewhat underdeveloped, despite being such an important central figure. And Evan’s choice to go along with the lie of having been friends with a dead kid to get closer to his sister does make him a morally questionable protagonist at best. But this moral ambiguity of whether or not he is really a good person is also kind of the point of the whole story.

The film does explore heavy themes of mental illness and teen suicide. Chbosky, who previously wrote the young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower and directed the excellent film version of it as well, does do a sensitive job of addressing these topics, even if Dear Evan Hansen sometimes dips into teen melodrama territory. Chbosky’s Perks cred makes him a good fit for the material in terms of tone and subject matter, but he doesn’t do much with the story on a visual level.

The cinematography by Brandon Trost has a flat, greyish look to it. While this can be somewhat excused since the film was shot during the pandemic and seems to have had a somewhat rushed production, I do wish the film had some more visual interest at least in terms of colour grading. It comes alive somewhat through snappy editing, including a lot of insert shots and bits of footage to flesh out the story during song numbers, but these moments feel a bit fleeting.

The screenplay by Steven Levenson, who also wrote the book for the musical, does make a few changes from the stage version, notably removing the songs “Anybody Have a Map?” and “To Break in a Glove,” and adding two new ones. This includes a new solo number for Stenberg’s character, which works fine in context but is not likely to become as beloved as the show’s other tunes.

The biggest change is an expanded ending that adds a greater sense of closure to the story, and works to somewhat redeem Evan’s character. I am personally a fan of the musical (I saw it during its Toronto run in 2019), and while this movie version doesn’t get everything right and lacks some visual flair, it worked for me more often than it doesn’t. I liked a lot of the performances, and enjoyed it overall.

Public Screenings:

Thursday, September 9th – 5:30 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Thursday, September 9th – 7:00 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Thursday, September 9th – 8:30 PM at RBC Lakeside Drive-In at Ontario Place

Thursday, September 9th – 9:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

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