TIFF 2021 Review: Dear Evan Hansen

Steven Chbosky’s adaptation of the Tony Award Winning stage show has its big moments, but ultimately fails to find its spark.

By Sean Blanford
Images courtesy of TIFF

The movie musical is a genre, much like horror and westerns, that tends to have a “love them or hate them” audience. When they work, like La La Land, Chicago, and dating back to Cabaret, they captivate audiences, garnering critical acclaim and winning countless awards. However, when we have one like, say, Cats, those end up being a fever dream that is either in perpetuity as a cult-ish classic or completely dismissed. Then there’s Steven Chbosky’s adaptation of the multi-time Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen. While it’s far too early to tell where it will land with the masses (it will be released in theaters on September 24th), as a whole, this is a smorgasbord of what works and what doesn’t with stage-to-film adaptations. It stays true to the indie feel of his other films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower but doesn’t feel as big as it should.

Evan Hansen is a high-school senior without friends, much of a family, and struggles with many social anxiety disorders. He copes with his mental health by writing letters to himself as a pep talk to make sure he knows that he’s an awesome person. After breaking his arm in a tree-climbing accident, his mother (Julianne Moore) thinks it would be a great way to make friends by having them sign his cast. Enter Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), the outcast whose initial run-ins create tension between himself and Evan. Still, in the library later that same day, Connor signs Evan’s cast in giant letters before stealing one of the letters Evan wrote. A few days later, news of Connor’s suicide spreads, and Evan’s letter is found by his parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), accidentally seeing it as the last words he was trying to convey to Evan. Instead of coming clean, Evan sees this as a form of being accepted into a family that cares about each other. The web that Evan spins pulls everyone in, including Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) and class head Alana (Amandla Stenberg).

This is a story about acceptance, being okay with who you are, and not being afraid to reach out for help when you need it. The crux is finding your lead likable enough that you want to root for them and hope they somehow come out the other side unscathed, even with their self-perceived flaws. Evan has the chance to be that person initially, but for most of the film, he is the opposite of what he should be. The overall conflict of Evan’s decision-making doesn’t carry much weight when we know that he is aware that what he is doing is wrong. It doesn’t help that Ben Platt, who portrayed Evan in the stage production, is all over the map in his acting, and not in a good way. Honestly, the more interesting story is that of the people around Evan rather than himself. Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg are much more believable as individuals dealing with their own history with Connor and mental illness that I wanted to know more about them.

Overall, Dear Evan Hansen misses more than it hits. It needed to be either more toned down with a different person playing the lead or a bigger production that grasped what’s great about stage-to-screen adaptations. Instead, it lands in the middle, failing to find its spark.

GRADE: 2.75/5 (C+)

Author: Sean Blanford

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