We’ve all lied to our friends, schoolmates and family before, and anyone who says they haven’t is just lying to themselves. Sometimes we lie from anxiety. What if your anxiety led to one lie that kept getting bigger and bigger? And what if revealing the truth could hurt the people you want to protect?
That’s the question posed by Dear Evan Hansen, the opening film of the 46th Toronto International Film Festival.
— James Mackin @ TIFF (@JamesMackin10) September 9, 2021
This was a smash Broadway hit that started playing in 2016, and shot star Ben Platt to fame. Since then, he’s starred in films like Pitch Perfect and Run This Town, as well as continuing a vibrant stage career. For this film adaptation, he reprises the role that made him famous.
Evan Hansen plays a teenager with severe social anxiety heading into his senior year. His therapist gives him an assignment of writing letters to himself to help build his confidence, but he struggles, often focusing on his failures and worries. A fellow student, Connor Murphy (played by Colton Ryan, also reprising his role from the Broadway production), sees his letter, assumes that Evan is attempting to make fun of him, and runs away with it.
Shortly after, Evan is called to the principal’s office where he meets Connor’s parents (played by Amy Adams from Enchanted and Danny Pino from Mayans M.C.). They give Evan’s letter back to him, revealing that Connor took his own life, and this letter was the only thing he had on his person. His parents assume it was a suicide note meant for Evan, and Evan can’t bring himself to tell them the truth.
Connor’s parents invite him to their house to learn more about their dearly departed son, and Evan becomes a surrogate son for the family. Growing up poor and spending time with this wealthy family, he finds a place where he feels welcomed, and starts to spend more time there to the chagrin of his own mother (played by Julianne Moore of Still Alice). He also grows closer with Connor’s sister Zoe, played by Kaitlyn Dever from Booksmart. But the question remains; does he tell them the truth and clear his conscience, or continue to live this lie with a newfound family?
Adapting a play to film is always a tricky proposition, especially with this intense subject matter. Dear Evan Hansen is able to pull it off by restructuring all the musical numbers with expressive cinematography and editing. For example, the opening number Waving Through a Window is sung by Platt to demonstrate how he feels separate from the world, as if he can only see them through a window. The film showcases this number by having his character walk through school watching everyone around him, but none of them notice him. No matter what he does, they don’t seem to pay attention.
This continues with lots of cross-cutting between characters singing musical numbers in different locations, such as when Connor’s family each sing the song Requiem. It’s demonstrated in many numbers throughout the film, and is easily the strongest point of the film. Most musicals suffer from the transition to film due to the lack of that live energy. But this film does a good enough job making up for that missing energy.
Where the film falters is with Platt’s casting. He’s an incredibly strong singer, and a good actor. He’s played this role countless times, and made it his own. While he may seem like an obvious choice for the role, he just doesn’t look like a teenager.
The 27 year old actor plays a 17 year old, but looks like a 37 year old. It’s jarring seeing his scenes with fellow teenagers like Dever, especially as those two characters enter into a romantic relationship. His scenes with fellow teenagers played by Amandla Stenberg (from the Hate U Give) and Nik Dodani (from Escape Room), who lead a project dedicated to raising mental health awareness following Connor’s suicide, seem like an awkward adult hanging out with teenagers. A cinematic musical is always an exercise in suspension of disbelief, but Platt’s so-called teenage appearance makes that hard.
Platt may feel a certain ownership of the role, having come to fame with it. But giving a younger actor another chance to take on this role could’ve made this a stronger film. However, the film’s supporting cast, especially Moore and Adams as Evan and Connor’s mothers respectively, pick up the slack. The film’s strongest scene is the only one the two share.