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TIFF 2021 Review: Dear Evan Hansen – “A lot to like about this adaptation”

Image Courtesy of TIFF

In 2012 director Stephen Chbosky debuted his film Perks of Being a Wallflower at the Toronto International Film Festival. Now, in a move he sees as ‘coming home’ as such, he brings a different high school story to premiere at the festival with the big screen with the adaptation of the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen.

Ben Platt is the only original cast member to reprise his Tony award-winning role of the titular character, a role he originated on Broadway.  Evan Hansen is a high school student suffering from depression and social anxiety.  As such he has been mostly on the outside of his high school experience, his only friend, Jared (Nik Dodani) more of a family acquaintance.  Evan’s mother (Julianne Moore) is a nurse, and with his father off in Colorado with his new partner, she works hard to keep the family of two on its feet, taking extra shifts and often leaving Evan to his own devices.  But, on the first day of a new school year, she is encouraging her son to make new friends, and to keep up with the assignment his therapist gave him, writing letters addressed to himself that begin:  “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be a good day.”

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Evan is going to school with a cast on his arm, the consequence of an accident that occurred during the summer, but no one will sign it.  No one that is except for Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), another outcast at the school, known for his drug use and outbursts of anger that his sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) feels she must apologize for.  But in the library after the first day, Connor picks up Evan’s letter he wrote to himself off the printer – one where he questions if anyone would miss him if he disappeared.  When Connor himself unfortunately dies by suicide, his parents (played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino) mistake the letter, found with him, as a cry for help to a dear friend.  Along with the evidence of Connor’s name on Evan’s cast, the Murphy family starts to embrace him as the last link to a son who long felt lost to them.  Evan, without the experience of family, or friendship, goes along with the ruse, feeling fulfilled by the horrible lies he tells that only brings him closer to them all, and his long-time crush, Zoe.

If that sounds heavy for a musical, it is, though the overwhelming feeling from seeing the show on stage is meant to be one of connection and hope.  It makes sense then that TIFF chose this as its opening film this year amongst the perspective of a pandemic that has kept us separated for so long.  Dear Evan Hansen provides a feeling of togetherness as audiences grace the festival theatres for the first time since 2019.  The sniffling noses during the more emotional notes of the film tell you all you need to know about how the message was received.

That said, the movie suffers from the some of the same problems the show does, for me anyway.  The emotional climax of both the show and the film happens in the middle, during the most famous of the show’s songs, “You Will Be Found.”  The back half of both the show and film can’t really live up to this peak, and the film especially drags because of it.  This is despite the addition of a new song, “Anonymous Ones” that co-star Amanda Stenberg, who plays Alana, penned alongside the musical’s original composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (they also wrote the music for The Greatest Showman and La La Land).  The new song, which contains the poignant lyric “The parts we can’t tell, we carry them well but that doesn’t mean they aren’t heavy,” fits in well with the original music and delves deeper into the issues surrounding mental health that are largely missing from the stage production, its most problematic failing.

Director Chbosky chose well having the cast sing mostly live during filming, and with Platt’s voice in place, someone who was used to bringing the character to life so often during his run on the Broadway production, why wouldn’t you?  But Stenberg and Dever also have great vocal talent and indeed the rest of the cast, including Moore sound impressive in their numbers.  However, now at 27, it’s quite evident that Platt isn’t in high school anymore, something they seemed to try their best to hide with make-up that just made him look even older (honestly, much of the whole cast seemed to be made to look pasty to match).  Platt is still compelling though in his portrayal of Evan, even if some of the mannerisms he employs, which likely played more subtle on stage, are less so when the camera is close.

Fans of the Broadway musical, of which I do count myself as one (perhaps giving this 1/2 star more than it might deserve because of that fact), will find a lot to like about this adaptation, though may be upset at the loss of a couple songs, including the stage version’s opener ‘Does Anybody Have a Map?’  Those unfamiliar with Dear Evan Hansen as a show however, may find it difficult to feel any empathy towards Evan as a whole, someone who betrays so many of the people he befriends, though the film does do a slightly better job of trying to get Evan to atone for the horrible actions he takes.  In general, the message of ‘You are not Alone’ that is the overarching theme of Dear Evan Hansen does translate, albeit with some missteps along the way.  You’re still likely to be humming along long after the film is over.

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