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TIFF: Dear Evan Hansen is a confounding adaptation of the stage musical

Dear Evan Hansen (TIFF)

Ben Platt’s age is the least of our problems in Stephen Chbosky’s misguided adaptation of an already misguided high school musical.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.)

There’s a scene toward the middle of Dear Evan Hansen where Larry (Danny Pino) finally allows himself to grieve the loss of his stepson, Connor (Colton Ryan). With his reserve and face crumbling in tandem, he bursts into the family home and reaches for his wife. The camera lingers behind Cynthia (Amy Adams) as Larry tucks himself into her shoulder and her hair sweeps to the side a little. This means that, in this moment of catharsis, the audience is treated to a perfectly framed Lululemon logo on the back of her jacket, right in the middle of the screen, right between a ponytail and a portrait of conquered repression. 

This scene is Dear Evan Hansen in a microcosm. Small parts of it are well done. Significantly more is not. It’s competently performed and perfectly costumed (of course, an upper-middle-class white mom would live in Lululemon). There’s a palpable undercurrent of earnest intent throughout that might make all but the most hardened viewer feel a moment of guilt for not being entirely on board with the proceedings. How dare you question this moment when everyone is trying so hard and it has a (kind of?) good message? But there’s a sense of the uncanny that’s impossible to shake throughout the proceedings. And the results are ceaselessly confounding.

Based on the hit stage musical of the same name, Dear Evan Hansen is about a teenager (Ben Platt) with social anxiety who writes letters addressed to himself as part of his therapy. One of those letters is found in his classmate Connor’s pocket after he dies by suicide. Desperate for any answers, Connor’s parents reach out to Evan. At first, Evan tries to explain the actual genesis of the note, and that it was in Conor’s pocket because he stole it during a light bout of bullying. But when that fails, he starts making up stories about their inspirational friendship.

Dear Evan Hansen (TIFF)
Dear Evan Hansen (TIFF)

The ruse wins Evan the love of Connor’s family, the respect of his classmates, and the admiration of a rapidly growing online fanbase until it inevitably spirals out of control and everyone learns some important lessons. (Spoiler alert: none of these lessons are “Maybe it’s not a good idea for school authorities to stick a troubled teen and a very fresh set of grieving adults alone in a room together with no professional or parental supervision.”)

The first thing to be lost in translation from stage to screen is the plot itself. Dear Evan Hansen bordered on polarizing on stage, too, but at least it existed in a world where there’s an established history of cheery execution and messed-up stories. Brigadoon is an old-timey love story wrapped in existential dread. Cabaret is a rousing and extremely danceable exploration of the verge of personal and political devastation. Pippin is essentially The Wicker Man with Fosse pelvises and jazz hands.

In cinematic form, a story about a young man who goes to such great lengths to capitalize on someone else’s tragedy might have worked as a creepy thriller or ironic comedy. But whatever tone Stephen Chbosky‘s movie musical is trying to pull off—plucky? post-modern feel good?—is a much harder sell. 

Platt, who originated the role of Evan on stage, suffers from an even more awkward transition. Part of the issue is his age. Platt’s now a decade older than his character and it shows, especially in the crowd scenes at school. But it goes beyond that. He’s proven himself to be a solid movie and television actor in other projects, but he never fully sheds the theatrical affectations here. 

A movie supposedly about confused and isolated souls finding each other leaves its audience at a total loss. 

When he’s singing, he still moves his head and jaw as if he’s projecting to a back row. When he moves, he folds himself in and fidgets like an exaggerated take on the way that neurotypical actors keep insisting on playing autistic characters. These choices were probably perfect when viewed from a distance. In the intimacy of close-ups, they’re almost uncomfortable. It’s not a bad performance by any means, but it is deeply unsuited for the medium. 

There’s a similar sense of everything being a little (or a lot) off that replicates itself in every aspect of the film. Genuinely emotional acting—Amandla Stenberg’s wide-eyed portrayal of an anxious and depressed perfectionist barely keeping it together is especially powerful—and maudlin, manipulative writing somehow combine to make a number of bizarrely empty big moments. The tried and true hesitant-whisper-sing-to-emotional-belt formula of many a beloved Broadway tune is overused to the point of making every song feel monotonous when it should be moving. Even the non-Lululemon costuming, which sees high school students running around making Instagram posts while looking like they’re trapped in 1997, contributes to the atmosphere of asynchronicity. 

Nothing clicks. No punchlines land. No emotional revelation resonates. And a movie supposedly about confused and isolated souls finding each other leaves its audience at a total loss. 

Dear Evan Hansen Trailer:

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Sarah Kurchak

Sarah Kurchak is a freelance writer and retired professional pillow fighter from Toronto, Canada. She once got into a deep discussion about Ingmar Bergman at an Impact Wrestling Taping. Her first book, I Overcame My Autism And All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder, is out now.