I have to imagine Dear Evan Hansen resembles the same feelings one would have attending their own high school reunion. There is awkwardness. Joy. Nostalgia. A reassessment of the past. Maybe there’s some sadness, but beauty too. All within people and an event aiming to turn back the clock and recapture some of the past like one hopes to capture a firefly in a jar.
The same could be true for this film, an event which reunites several core members of the original Dear Evan Hansen musical including playwright Sean Levenson, songwriters and composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and lead actor Ben Platt; the show took Broadway by storm in 2016 and a year later all three creatives took home Tony awards for their respective work. In bringing the musical to the big screen they are joined by director Stephen Chbosky, who brought his own material to the screen in 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
The plot follows Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) — a high school senior who struggles to fit in with other students and overcome his anxiety. At home, he lives with his busy but loving single mother Heidi (Julianne Moore). For an assignment from his therapist, Evan writes a letter to himself, which ends up in the hands of one of his classmates named Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan, who understudied for the same role in the Broadway musical).
When Conner unexpectedly commits suicide, his parents Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) find Evan’s note and believe the two were close friends; though initially denying that Connor wrote the letter Evan eventually gives in and gets trapped in a lie. A lie that while giving him the popularity and support he always desired, including from Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), just might be too late to stop.
Fans of Dear Evan Hansen should be happy to know that the film is a pretty straightforward adaptation of the musical, besides the addition of two new songs. With the material being presented in a new medium however you may look back at the plot, and it’s main character, in a new light — I know I certainly did. I don’t know if back when I saw the musical on stage I was too enthralled by the Broadway lights, but here I had a lot more of a difficult time getting on Evan’s side as he tries to perpetuate a twisted lie for his own gain; the film makes sure to point out that Evan is wrong for this but to borrow a phrase from another musical if you’re not in the “The Room Where It Happens” it feels hard to continuously root for him.
Fortunately, the movie has a cast that does a solid job of keeping one invested in the story. Much has been said about the decision to keep Ben Platt as Evan Hansen. I do have to say that Platt does distract from the story in quite a few instances as he’s clearly not in high school; I found myself chuckling in serious moments I shouldn’t have. Working in his favor though is Platt’s beautiful singing voice which does a better job at convincing you of his character than his appearance ever could.
I thought Chbosky’s direction complemented the musical portions of the story well here; he keeps things minimal with not a lot of over-the-top staging or editing. This allows you as an audience member to really focus on the performances of the cast. When you have a cast that includes Adams, Dever, Moore, and Platt who can pull emotions out of you as easily as a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, I don’t know if you’ll be able to walk away from the movie saying you felt nothing.
In the end, the film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen is a conflicting experience; you may have a hard time rooting for the main character and laugh unintentionally during some scenes only to be hit with emotions from the performances of its cast. I have to imagine it’s similar to what one feels after leaving their high school reunion. Despite being awkward, it has its moments that get you. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be?