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"DEAR EVAN HANSEN"
(2021) (Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Musical: A mousey high school senior allows others to believe that a classmate who's just killed himself was his best friend.
PLOT:

Evan Hansen (BEN PLATT) is a self-conscious and highly apologetic high school senior at Westview H.S. where few outside his family friend, Jared Kalwani (NIK DODANI), know he exists. With help from his single nurse mom, Heidi (JULIANNE MOORE), Evan is on various prescription drugs and is seeing a therapist, but that's only doing him so much good, with him too nervous even to shake the hand of the classmate he likes, Zoe Murphy (KAITLYN DEVER), after her unstable older brother, Connor (COLTON RYAN), yells at him.

Part of Evan's therapy is to write letters to himself, and after composing one where he questions if anyone would miss him should he leave this world, Connor takes that letter, leaves, and kills himself later that day. Much to Evan's shock, Connor's mom, Cynthia (AMY ADAMS), and stepdad, Larry (DANIEL PINO), think the "Dear Evan Hansen" letter was penned by their late son and, believing that Evan was his only friend, want to know everything about that apparent secret friendship.

Realizing his parents are desperate for any bit of comforting news, Evan lies that he was the boy's friend, and then continues with that ruse, including to comfort Zoe who didn't think much of her brother. That eventually blows up to the point that class overachiever Alana Beck (AMANDLA STENBERG) decides to create a memorial fund in Connor's name, something Evan realizes is now too far out of control for him to try to contain. From that point on, and as he gets closer to Zoe, the student continues with the ruse that's now made him famous and popular online, at school, and close with Zoe and her family.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

Despite the intervening decades, I distinctly remember having seen the movie version of "Grease" with my cousin and sister in the theater back when it came out, and telling my mom that she and my dad had to see it. I was surprised to learn from her that he hated musicals as he thought it was goofy/dumb for people to suddenly break into song and dance and thus none of them felt real.

Granted, most musicals aren't that by their very nature (especially on the stage where the artifice is more apparent and enthusiastically embraced). Thus, one can forgive John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John for suddenly belting out their feelings about summer love

But when the subject matter turns out to be far more serious, such as about suicide and messing with people's feelings via deceit, it's a much trickier proposition to mix that solemn material with people suddenly singing and dancing.

That disparity and disconnect are what hang over most if not all of "Dear Evan Hansen," the new movie adaptation of the award-winning stage play of the same name. Having not seen that on the stage, I can't attest how well (or not) it gets around that very potentially problematic issue, and maybe it works better on the stage where the illusion of make-believe is far more evident than on film.

Whatever the case might be in that sort of setting, it's out front and center (and sometimes in close-up) in this film from director Stephen Chbosky who works from a screenplay by Steven Levenson (who wrote the book for the 2015 stage play).

The title character is a high school senior, the type of which is a mousey and insecure loner. He lives with his overworked nurse mom (Julianne Moore) and whose only friend (Nik Dodani) snarkily reminds him that they're really only "family friends." Evan's never-seen therapist has instructed him to write letters to himself (hence the title) and one of those ends up in the hands of another student, Connor (Colton Ryan), whose intense and angry loner demeanor makes Even look like the prom king in comparison.

He ends up getting his hands on Evan's latest self-addressed letter (where Evan contemplates whether anyone would even notice if he was no longer around) and then has it with him when he commits suicide. That teen's parents (played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino) find said letter and understandably think the boys were friends. And they're desperate to learn anything Evan can tell them about their troubled son that might ease some of their emotional burdens.

Not knowing what to do, Evan hesitantly and reluctantly goes along with the ruse, which includes lying to the dead boy's sister (a terrific Kaitlyn Dever), his own mom, and his classmates, including one (Amandla Stenberg) who's touched in more ways than one by Evan befriending the troubled soul.

The white lie to help alleviate others' suffering thematic material is intriguing (if hardly original), and the sudden belting out of a song format does allow the characters to wear their thoughts and feelings more easily on their sleeves than through traditional dialogue. But that song format doesn't do much to offset the occasionally superficial look at teen angst, loneliness, and depression.

That said, this is far from a complete train wreck (a la "Cats"). It occasionally delivers with some effective moments, the occasional decent song (especially "Sincerely Me"), and I like the overall idea fueling the plot. It's just that the musical approach gives an artificial vibe to something that shouldn't feel that way (whereas a black comedy or horror approach likely could) and that certainly affects the way some/many will view the film.

That artificially is also present with some of the emotional responses (or lack thereof at times) to the tragedy, especially in the film's first half. Throw in the running time (137 minutes) and that lead Ben Platt (who originated the part on the stage and is now 28) looks too old to play a high schooler (yes, as did nearly everyone in the movie version of "Grease") and too much of all that ends up feeling distracting to the point that it ultimately can't overcome those issues.

Decent enough at times but feeling like a conflicted teenager at others, the film had me wanting it to tell me more, but there aren't enough good chills (especially of the multiplying kind) to give "Dear Evan Hansen" more than a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 22, 2021 / Posted September 24, 2021


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