September 20, 2021

CINEMA | 'Dear Evan Hansen' Sings and Lies x TIFF 2021

"I have to tell them."
Ben Platt Nik Dodani Stephen Chbosky | Dear Evan Hansen | TIFF 2021
Toronto International Film Festival
Novelist turned filmmaker Stephen Chbosky directs Tony-winning star Ben Platt in the film version of the 2016 smash Broadway musical hit. Ostensibly a high school story about a horrible, but initially unintentional, deception gone awry revolving around depression and suicide, Dear Evan Hansen really feels like a teen musical told out of its time here.

Much has been made of Platt's age and less than youthful (heavily made-up) appearance in playing a sensitive teen who is still very much a child. His title character, a role he originated on stage, does some truly reprehensible yet still somewhat understandable things to another family in grief by gaslighting them for social gain and the key to understanding he's not a totally monstrous person is his relative age and youth. We need to root for him and it's extremely hard to do so here.

It's never not clear we are witnessing a (27-year-old) grown man belting out broadly appealing show tunes composed by all-star songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It just doesn't work and is hard to relate to or forgive. Playwright Steven Levenson adapts his own work with a few (but not nearly enough) tweaks for the screen with some passing similarities to the film World's Greatest Dad and its similar but much more relatable plotline about a big lie also revolving around a teen suicide. Dear Evan Hansen's message about mental health and lying feel much more damaging and problematic on the screen than on stage.

Ben Platt Stephen Chbosky | Dear Evan Hansen | TIFF 2021
Universal Pictures
Filling out Chbosky's cast, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Julianne Moore, and Amy Adams bring some fresh energy to the Broadway adaptation yet they are unable to temper Platt's awkwardly dour presence. Dever and Stenberg as classmates do a lot to ground the film's melodrama with their heartfelt and earnest performances in reacting to the title character's emotional outbursts and social anxieties.

It's hard to overcome the inconsistencies of adapting the already tricky stage musical material onto the big screen. Dear Evan Hansen would have likely been aided by a younger, more na├»ve-looking lead actor to sympathize with. Platt struggles to be relatable as a teenager battling social anxieties, depression, and suicide. The musical's subject matter comes off much too seriously when seen through the lens of an adult—even when sung.

Dear Evan Hansen premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Gala Presentations program.

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