Dear Evan Hansen Review: A musical that doesn’t belong on the big screen
Dear Evan Hansen was one of those breakout musicals that you knew what going to try to make the jump to the big screen eventually, and its movie adaptation shows that it just belongs on the stage.
Now, it’s understandable why there was so much pushback on this beloved musical being brought to the big screen, but it did seem like the right pieces were in place given some of the talent working on it. A Dear Evan Hansen adaptation seemed perfect for director Stephen Chbosky given that his previous films, mainly Wonder and Perks of Being a Wallflower, are pretty akin to it. Not to mention, getting Ben Platt, who mainly broke out because of his performance in the stage production, back for the role gave the adaptation much more promise. Yes, he is absolutely too old for the role and looks like a visual representation of a man-child with the very kid looking clothes they have him wear. Visually, Platt and most of the other cast stick out like sore thumbs and are the visual definition of adults playing kids. However, it’s undeniable that Platt’s familiarity with the role improves this adaptation and his voice is strongest cinematic element of the film.
It’s clear from the start that Platt’s experience in playing Evan, a high school senior deeply suffering from social anxiety who befriends the family of Connor (Colton Ryan), a teen that committed suicide, after they mistake a letter that Evan wrote for therapy as Connor’s suicide note, pays off well for the film. He initially makes Evan’s damaging social anxiety tug at your heart and the voice he brings to the film’s music makes it able to jump to cinema better than if he wasn’t there. He absolutely kills it in the opening number, Waving Through a Window, and the way his voice adds in good emotion and power to certain songs makes them more meaningful in the moment. It’s also worth noting that Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Connor’s sister Zoe, also puts in a great performance and has a really strong voice with this music.
However, if this adaptation proves anything, it’s that Dear Evan Hansen solely belongs on the stage. With more recognizable actors and big cinematic elements added in, a lot of the sincerity of the show and its story are stripped away. When you see a show like this on-stage, it’s easier to have a more personal connection with the story and characters because its not trying to dazzle you with big-name movie stars or be over the top with its musical numbers. Even the setting itself offers a more intimate connection that doesn’t exist as strongly in a cinema atmosphere. It’s the kind of stage show that simply has great performances that make the characters more relatable and Dear Evan Hansen’s music hits better on a smaller stage because it doesn’t contain big flashy Broadway musical numbers.
Rather, they’re more personally ingrained into the story and characters and here that’s almost the case. Because of Platt and sometimes Dever’s voice power, the power and personal impact of the lyrics still come through at times. For everyone else in the cast, they just kind of come up subpar or too hammed up and the “star-studded” cast really rips away from these characters feeling real despite solid performances. Not to mention, these kinds of songs aren’t meant to be cinematic and any attempt here at making them that way ends up coming off cheap and damaging to the story.
While pretty much everyone’s performances are solid throughout with Platt and Dever remaining the standouts, there’s just something about Chbosky’s direction that just doesn’t work and ends up making the more sympathetic elements of Evan and his story come off wrong. When it comes to Evan initially lying about knowing Connor, there’s at least something kind of honest about the situation. Given that Connor’s parents, mainly his mother Cynthia (Amy Adams), are dead set on the letter being written by Connor to Evan since they see it as the last shred of him they have left, it makes sense that Evan would try to appease them rather than tell the truth. His social anxiety would likely stop him from wanting to devastate them with the truth and there are at least some noticeable good intentions behind his actions.
However, then things start to rub you the wrong way about Evan with how he continues to lie in order to start a romance with Zoe and help create a big foundation that makes him popular with everyone. Yeah, it’s kind of the point of the story to teach Evan that he isn’t alone, but the way Chbosky’s direction depicts Evan isn’t always the best. As his actions move in a more selfish direction, Evan just comes off creepy and kind of slimy in a way that makes him lose his sympathetic qualities and the film doesn’t give him a strong enough resolution or lesson-learning moment to get you back in his corner. It doesn’t help that there also more cinematic elements into the way the story is shown throughout, and it adds to this adaptation turning this story into some superficial.
Dear Evan Hansen is simply foiled by its inability to maintain its authenticity and emotional strengths in its transition in becoming a cinematic experience that ultimately feels hollow and superficial. There are just some shows that simply don’t work as films, Dear Evan Hansen is one of them.