Review: The untidy heart of “Dear Evan Hansen”

Review: The Untidy Heart of Dear Evan Hansen

The movie adaptation of the acclaimed Broadway musical is flawed but powerful.
Published: September 27, 2021 | Updated: October 1st, 2021 at 7:58 am

Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award winner Ben Platt reprises his role as the anxious teenager Even Hansen.

It’s been a dream of mine for years to see Ben Platt play Evan Hansen, but not quite like this.

Platt reprised the role he originated in Broadway’s Tony-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen for the film adaptation directed by Stephen Chbosky, in theaters now. Evan is a high school student, and as Platt is now 28, audiences and critics have criticized his casting online. Although actors in their 20s regularly play teenagers onscreen, the Dear Evan Hansen movie’s production team overcorrected—Platt’s clean-shaven face is caked with so much makeup that his skin resembles putty. He looks more like a Muppet than a human boy.

Which is a shame, because Platt’s rubbery lips and clay-smooth cheeks distract from the film’s merits. Although the plot, which is more or less the same as the Broadway show, is as convoluted as ever, the unflinching authenticity of the movie’s portrayal of mental illness and Platt’s bighearted, golden-voiced performance are nonetheless magical.

The writer of the musical’s script, Steven Levenson, adapted it for the screen. The story has always been hard to follow—socially anxious Evan writes himself a letter on the advice of his therapist; troubled classmate Connor Murphy grabs the letter from the printer at the school library; when Connor kills himself days later, his parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) find the letter and take it to mean Evan is Connor’s friend; Evan stammers his way into confirming the lie, which blossoms out of control. Evan becomes something of a surrogate son to the grieving Murphys based on this deception, while also developing a romance with their daughter Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever); he sings to her about all the things Connor secretly loved about her which are actually the things…Evan loves about her. It’s illogical, it’s weird, and it all works a lot better if you don’t think too hard about it.

 

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Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever in "Dean Evan Hansen" movie.

The movie is more about feeling than thinking anyway. Although Platt’s facial expressions, too often in close-up and under blazing lights, are unsettling to see with all that makeup, each crack of his voice, each tremor of his hand, make Evan achingly real. His mellifluous voice is sometimes too big for the school hallways and suburban houses the movie confines it to, as are the emotions expressed in the devastating score. The melodrama of the story is perhaps better suited to the stage. And yet the raw feeling that Platt brings to every note he sings is a revelation.

The rest of the cast bring varying degrees of singing ability to their roles. Adams, Pino, and Dever give a stirring performance of “Requiem,” in which they each grieve Connor in their own separate ways, a beautifully edited sequence that emphasizes each family member’s isolated sorrow. Amandla Stenberg, as overachieving classmate Alana, has a pretty if not terribly rich voice; she co-wrote her solo, “The Anonymous Ones,” for the film with Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, the musical’s composers. But as far as singing goes, the movie belongs to Platt (as it should).

There are few pieces of modern culture that portray teenage mental illness as heartrendingly and authentically as Dear Evan Hansen does. The song “Waving Through a Window,” a gorgeously heartfelt solo number that shows off Platt’s ringing falsetto, captures the feeling of social isolation with astonishing resonance.

Other songs, like “You Will Be Found,” give voice to the secret yearnings for connection that live in all of us. The song is Evan’s speech at a memorial assembly for Connor, a speech that may originate in lies but nonetheless touches on Evan’s truth and speaks to the loneliness every heart carries. His speech goes viral, and we see Evan’s classmates and people around the world connecting to it—a swelling chorus of voices that sing, “You are not Alone,” a million tiny screens of clicks and shares that form a picture of Connor. Is it corny? Yes. Is it also poignant and lovely? Absolutely.

Then, in tearjerker “Words Fail,” Evan lays all his deepest insecurities and darkest secrets bare, confessing both to his tangle of lies and to the self-loathing and desperation that brought him there. As he did on Broadway, Platt gives that number his voice-breaking, sobbing all, singing, “I’d rather pretend I’m something better than / These broken parts / Pretend I’m something other than / This mess that I am.”

Evan’s vulnerability and sorrow-filled beating heart shine through all that ridiculous makeup and leave you with a beautifully moving portrayal of mental illness.

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is a graduate student in the arts journalism and communications program, and a contributor for The NewsHouse.