‘Dear Evan Hansen’: Beautiful ballads crash into an ugly narrative

“Dear Evan Hansen” – “On the outside, always looking in.  Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?  ‘Cause I’m tap, tap, tapping on the glass. I’m waving through a window.  I try to speak, but nobody can hear.”  – Evan Hansen (Ben Platt)

Evan lives in dire straits.  He’s a senior at Westview High School, and like many other students, he carries anxiety about his current place in (and state of) the world. 

Comedienne Carol Burnett said, “Adolescence is one big pimple,” and she’s right. 

Evan frequently feels that he could burst into tears, but he mainly frets.  While other kids stress about grades, dating, curfews, driving, and peer pressure, most of his classmates have found their close array of confidants, compadres, or sworn allies. 

Not Evan.  He’s doesn’t have one true friend, and his troubled mental state is more disastrous than the average teen.  He suffers from anxiety and depression and takes Zoloft and Wellbutrin to help cope through his days.  Still, his self-esteem remains lower than a limbo bar in Antarctica.

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) and his mom (Julianne Moore)

However, Director Stephen Chbosky and writer Steven Levenson attempt to offer warm empathy for Evan.  They feature teenage mental illness as a centerpiece of their film, adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name.  Director Michael Greif’s live theatrical hit garnered six Tony Awards in 2017, including Best Musical, and Platt earned Best Performance by a Lead Actor in a Musical.

No question, Platt can sing his lungs out, and composers Justin Paul and Benj Pasek cranked out a flat-out beautiful, vastly-catchy collection of tunes, including “If I Could Tell Her”, “Anybody Have a Map?”, the centerpiece track “You Will Be Found”, and the opening solo “Waving Through a Window”.   And why not?  Paul and Plasek are the melodious minds behind “La La Land” (2016) and “The Greatest Showman” (2017).

Yes, this is them!  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Do yourself a favor and find Platt’s “Waving Through a Window” rendition from the 2017 Tony Awards. 

Fabulous stuff.  Completely fabulous.

The music isn’t the problem in “Dear Evan Hansen”, and neither are the performances.  Platt’s Evan sells teen angst as well as Crispin Glover’s George McFly (“Back to the Future” (1985)) and Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian Johnson (“The Breakfast Club” (1985)).  Evan, George, and Brian are three peas in a pod.  Well, three separate pods because these loners wouldn’t function in one. 

Also, Platt’s co-star Kaitlyn Dever (“Booksmart” (2019)) is awfully convincing as a grieving sister, and so are Amy Adams and Danny Pino, as Zoe’s (Dever) parents.

Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever)

Why are they in mourning?  Her brother and their son, Connor (Colton Ryan), commits suicide, and Zoe, Cynthia (Adams), and Larry (Pino) are left with a dozen questions but have zero answers.

Unfortunately for this family, Evan repeatedly lies about his friendship with Connor and then provides false answers to their inquiries, as one fib snowballs into an avalanche of deceptive falsehoods.  Soon he can’t control the narrative in school or online, and he volleys from embarrassment to elation because he suddenly feels seen and heard.  He’s no longer waving through a window but stepping through it and embracing others and himself.

To be fair, this crashing mountain did begin with a misunderstanding, not a lie.  So, Evan isn’t at fault at first.  

But misunderstandings occur with regularity in movies and television. Take “Three’s Company” (1976 – 1984) and look at any episode. The sitcom’s mix-ups are either resolved by the end of a 22-minute show or within just a few moments, like when Mr. Furley (Don Knotts) thought that Jack (John Ritter) and Chrissy (Suzanne Somers) were a couple, but they were simply putting up a shower curtain (while fully clothed).  Pretty harmless.

Here, Evan’s shameful lies and coverup are wickedly harmful (about a billion times more destructive), and with the film’s 137-minute runtime, we have to endure our protagonist’s horrible errors in judgment for – what seems like – an eternity.  Yes, Evan is – somehow – featured as a protagonist, as he smashes into a delicate narrative about a kid taking his own life.  The sad thing is every single moviegoer knows – straight away – how this brutal story will end for him.  

Evan (Platt)

Quite frankly, it’s difficult to muster up any sympathy for Evan, as the real victims are Zoe, Cynthia, Larry, and anyone else who believed him.  Maybe “Dear Evan Hansen” would offer a different vibe as a straight-up drama, like “The Spectacular Now” (2013) which effectively and empathetically dealt with alcoholism.  Perhaps the original Broadway version imprints differently, or the live production sets Evan’s abhorrent decisions (more) in the background as the music takes center stage (pardon the pun). 

I haven’t seen the live version, so I don’t know. 

However, I experienced the movie.  Hey, I’ll listen to the exceptional music again and again, but one viewing of this flawed film is more than enough.

⭐️⭐️ out of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Directed by: Stephen Chbosky

Written by: Steven Levenson

Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, Danny Pino, and Colton Ryan

Rated: PG-13

Runtime: 137 minutes

Image credits: Universal Pictures

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