The film adaptation of the beloved Broadway musical sometimes doesn’t measure up to the musical greatness of the original, but it’s a stunningly emotional and equally devastating spotlight on mental health and the measures some will take in order to cope with their own struggles.
I’ve been waiting for this movie for so long now. I’ve never been able to catch the musical on Broadway, sadly, but I have listened to the soundtrack from beginning to end countless times. It’s always resonated with me in a way for some reason and it’s a soundtrack I continuously revisit to experience it all over again. Once again, I’ve never seen the play and although I did have a general idea of what it’s all about, I never realized how there are so many small details in the story that impact other events going on. It’s pretty bizarre how I have a completely different perspective on Dear Evan Hansen all together, and mostly positive, of course. I can’t necessarily compare it to the original because I haven’t seen it, but I have to assume it’s very similar to it, even if there are some subtle changes. Regardless, I have many thoughts about this film and the important message it tells, which is one I think everyone should be aware of.
Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of Evan Hansen, a high schooler who struggles with fitting in because of his social anxiety. Longing to find a place where he belongs, Evan soon finds himself on a life-altering journey when a letter he writes to himself as part of a therapy exercise lands into the hands of Connor Murphy’s parents, who found the letter after their son takes his own life.
Critique me or hate on me if I’m wrong, but there’s absolutely no one else who can play Evan, at least in my eyes, other than the one who originated the role, Ben Platt. From the pitch perfect tone he brings to the vocal showcases, to the passion he puts on display in every scene as Evan, he was truly made for this role and after so much experience as the character, you can see how comfortable he is bringing him to life. For example, being that Evan suffers from social anxiety, there are many characteristics and mannerisms Platt performs, such as the ticks, grabbing at his shirt, not making eye contact, walking hunched and awkwardly through the halls with his head down. This is all part of this character and this was years of practice coming to fruition on the big screen.
I saw various people online complaining about Platt in the role due to his age, but I didn’t have much of a problem with it at all. I mean, sure, he does look a bit old to be a high schooler, but do you know how many movies and TV shows that are set in high school have actors who absolutely don’t look like high schoolers? I can give plenty of examples, such as Tom Welling playing Clark Kent in Smallville. Are we really supposed to believe he’s an actual high schooler? Others include Easy A and the most recent Power Rangers. Let’s not kid ourselves and let’s not make such a big deal of it. At least Platt is pretty small in stature, so it also helps the portrayal as well.
I truly believe Platt will be in consideration for an Oscar once awards season comes around. He did win the Tony for the Broadway musical, so the chances of him, at the very least, getting nominated are substantially high. It’s one of the best film performances of the year and it demands to be seen just to see what this character is all about and how masterful Platt is in the role.
Two other outstanding performances come from Kaitlyn Dever as Zoe Murphy and Amandla Stenberg as Alana Beck. Specifically speaking, Dever really shines in this role. She’s been one of the best up-and-coming actresses for quite some time now. Not only did she further prove how talented she is with her acting chops, but she also showed she has a great singing voice as well. I can’t say she sounds as good as Laura Dreyfuss, but she was much better than I expected. The same can be said about Stenberg, who is also proving to be incredibly talented with each new performance.
I wish I can say the same about the rest of the cast. It’s not that their performances weren’t up to par, because they were, but that’s also the problem. It’s how underutilized they were after being so great with what they were given. Let’s be honest here; you have both Julianne Moore and Amy Adams, who are both phenomenal and award winning/nominated actresses. You definitely need to give them a bit more to work with here. Ultimately, there isn’t enough of it, which is a bit disappointing. There are some quality and heartfelt moments with each of these characters, however, so you have to appreciate it when it is there.
Then there’s others, such as Danny Pino’s Larry Mora and Colton Ryan’s Connor Murphy. Both of these characters deserved a bit more shine as well. I’m not sure how it goes in the stage musical in terms of them having an expanded role, but there’s one major factor, I feel, takes away from their characters in the film adaptation, and that is the lack of some songs from the original tracklist.
Songs such as “Anybody Have a Map?”, “Disappear,” “To Break in a Glove,” and “Good for You” are all missing from the film, unfortunately. “Anybody Have a Map?” is the first song in the Broadway production and it really sets the tone for the musical by explaining the Murphy’s situation a bit while also having an upbeat tempo. It also gives the characters of Cynthia and Larry a bit more room to shine, which, in this case, would’ve been Adams and Mora. The same can be said about “Disappear,” which is one of my favorite tracks from the original. Mike Faist as Connor in this song is fantastic and it’s unfortunate it’s not included in this one. Essentially, it was replaced by “The Anonymous Ones” by Stenberg, which is also a good listen, but I don’t think it’s nearly as good as “Disappear.” “To Break in a Glove” is one of the most underrated songs of the musical for me. It’s replaced by a specific moment in the movie, but it wasn’t as impactful as the song is. It’s a great father moment for Larry who’s venting to Evan about Connor. Lastly, I totally think Moore would’ve killed “Good for You” if given the opportunity, but it didn’t happen.
Every other song makes a return in the movie, for better or worse. The ones with Platt singing are all phenomenal, as expected. Some highlights, however, include “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever,” and, for me, the most heart-wrenching one is “Words Fail.” He really gives his absolute all with this musical number. You can see the pain in his eyes and how he breaks down while trying to sing it. It’s definitely one of the most powerful scenes in the entire film. The rest of the other songs are still somewhat catchy, but I didn’t really enjoy them as much as I hoped. Personally, I think “Sincerely, Me” missed the mark. It doesn’t have the same spark as the original. The same goes for “If I Could Tell Her,” which was my introduction to Dear Evan Hansen. It just didn’t do it for me. The Broadway version is probably my favorite song from it, so I had high expectations for it in the movie. It isn’t bad, but doesn’t compare to the original.
When adapting musicals into feature films, you can expect some musical numbers to fall short, and I’m okay with that. What impacted me the most about Dear Evan Hansen, and what I feel is the most important reason why people need to see this movie, is how it tackles the subject of mental health. Social anxiety, depression, loneliness, rejection, and the feeling of wanting to belong to something are all on full display here. I have yet to see a movie portray it in this way since The Perks of Being a Wallflower (from the same director, Stephen Chbosky) and have such meaning. I really do feel many people can relate to most characters in this movie, especially Evan. He’s an extreme introvert who doesn’t know how to express his emotions or feelings. Deep down, he really wants to fit in and have someone to talk to and be himself without trying to put on an act. Of course, I’m not justifying a lot of his actions in the movie, but I can understand why he makes certain decisions, even though they can end up hurting others.
What we don’t realize about mental health at times is the person who is suffering with it isn’t in the greatest state of mind. Whatever decision or choice that person is making isn’t always with conviction or mental fortitude. People like Evan are really suffering and will do anything they can to relieve themselves of the hurt and brokenness they feel inside. I’ve seen some criticism about the decisions he makes in the movie and how he takes advantage of the situation presented to him. Some people have a point and I’m not saying they’re wrong, but we have to look at the main issue, and that’s Evan is not okay. He does need help and I hope this film opens up a conversation so that others who are experiencing similar feelings can have the courage to get the help they need before potentially life-threatening choices are made. Seeing all the events unfold in the film are overwhelmingly emotional at times. Be ready for a tearjerker.
Director Stephen Chbosky isn’t a stranger to crafting extremely well-done coming-of-age movies. He’s done it with The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder. He was in familiar territory with Dear Evan Hansen, especially when you see how he handles the characters. He isn’t afraid to really put all of their problems and issues front and center, letting the audience experience what these characters are going through. He expertly and accurately portrays what some victims of mental health really live with on a daily basis and how devastating it can be. In terms of Connor’s suicide, it doesn’t simply affect the life that was taken, but it impacts everyone around you, even if you didn’t know them very well. Chbosky dives into this realm with such expertise and completely understands the context of what it’s all about. From a technical standpoint, I don’t think he’s the best choice for a musical since some of the scene transitions into songs were a bit abrupt and sort of shoe-horned in randomly. However, it wasn’t terrible and he mostly did a fairly good job, for what it’s worth. The best way to describe his approach isn’t necessarily a musical, but more of a drama with songs, if that makes any sense at all.
Watching Dear Evan Hansen in today’s climate is a necessity. There could’ve been many improvements with its pacing, structure, and some of the original songs should’ve been included. Ultimately, what makes this movie work is the great performances throughout (even though some didn’t get the importance they deserved), and the critical message it’s sending. The topic of mental health needs to be discussed openly in order for people to get some clarity about it and the victims of it can get the help they deserve. It may not live up to the standard the Broadway production established, but I feel it’s mostly a worthy adaptation and it should be seen. It could end up on my best films of 2021 list, but we’ll see.