Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Universal Pictures will release it in theaters on Friday, September 24.
TIFF’s second year during the COVID-19 pandemic opened with a bigger slate (132 features compared to last year’s 60) and “Dear Evan Hansen,” an adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit. Thematically, a film about a teenager grappling with loneliness and mental health problems makes perfect sense for the festival’s inaugural film. As artistic director Cameron Bailey noted during his introduction to the film, the coming-of-age musical touches on feelings many people have experienced during the pandemic.
The film should be a hit: It touches on timely subject matter, the songs are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who have won awards for songs in “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman”), and the stage musical won six Tony Awards. Unfortunately, Stephen Chbosky’s poor directorial choices cancel out the rousing success “Dear Evan Hansen” was on stage, with a cascade of glaring distractions that continuously point out the artificiality of the genre.
Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, reprising his Broadway role) is a high school student with nary a real friend besides his mom Heidi (Julianne Moore), who’s too busy doing double shifts as a nurse to spend time with her son. Platt’s hunched-over, sad-eyed physicality is constantly and overtly pronounced. It unnecessarily draws more attention to the fact that a 27-year-old is playing a teenager. Platt’s larger-than-life affectations may have worked well for the stage so the audience can see Evan’s intense social anxiety, but on screen, Platt’s darting eyes are far too creepy to portray the shy, kind teenager the audience wants to root for.
Evan’s therapist instructs him to write letters to himself to express his feelings, and so he begins a series of letters with “Dear Evan Hansen.” His edgy classmate Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) steals one of these letters, only to read in disgust that Evan has feelings for Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). A few days later, Connor’s parents Larry (Danny Pino) and Cynthia (Amy Adams) meet with Evan to reveal that their son has recently taken his own life. Evan’s letter was the only thing found on his person, and they (understandably) assume Connor and Evan were friends and that Connor had written the note for Evan.
What starts off as an innocent misunderstanding built on Evan’s hesitation to further wound the grieving Murphy family becomes an enormous lie. Yes, he claims, they were friends. It’s fantastical, of course, as Connor was an angry loner who let virtually no one into his life. Connor’s family, including Zoe, who expresses an interest in Evan for the first time, press him for details about their secret friendship. At some point, Evan believes the entire confabulation himself, because it has granted him the rare opportunity to be seen. The seemingly authentic story of his fictional friendship and efforts to raise awareness around mental health go viral and he finally becomes popular at school. He develops close relationships with people who accept him for who he is, warts and all. For once, Evan feels connected to friends and a family, one who has the time and resources to dote on him. The Murphys see him as the son they lost — and never had.
Of course, Evan’s terrible lie must eventually come out, and while the details won’t be spoiled here, novelist Steven Levenson deserves credit for his restraint to not inject more drama into an unbelievable story. The ending could have been anticlimactic; instead, it develops into a poignant moment between Evan and his mother, who is barely present, not only in her son’s life, but the film as well.
Despite her lack of screen time, Moore’s song “So Big/So Small” is one of the few genuinely touching songs in the entire film, but that’s not because the rest are terrible (though they never reach the quality of “City of Stars” or “This Is Us”) or the talent of the performers. It’s a misfire in Chbosky’s direction. Awkward, choppy dialogue precedes many of the songs, with some lines being half-dialogue, half-lyric. The first few verses are often more talky than melodic, and while this is a common musical trope, “Dear Evan Hansen” tries very hard to increase the duration before a conversation actually turns into a song or flits between dialogue and song, and these attempts fail. There’s simply no way to blend the two. You either talk or you sing.
Indeed, the music is where “Dear Evan Hansen” will likely lose its audience. In the inevitable scene where the truth is found out, “Words Fail” is especially painful to watch, as there are so few uttered words of dialogue preceding it. This makes sense, given the gravitas of the devastating reveal, but it’s a moment better served by long pauses and silence. Instead, the forced melody destroys the emotional weight the scene should have had.
Coming-of-age movies rely on a certain level of verisimilitude so audiences can connect with the humdrum existential threat of adolescence. This is impossible in a musical, because most people don’t break out into song during fraught moments. Platt is most entertaining to watch when he’s leaning into the dark awkwardness of his character, like when he’s side-eyeing an excited Zoe as he feeds her small details he noticed about his crush, which he falsely credits to Connor.
“Dear Evan Hansen” would have been a much more well-rounded mainstream movie about mental health if the writers had abandoned the original’s artifice and adapted it for a more realistic genre, like a dramedy. But then it wouldn’t have been as exciting or life-affirming without the Oscar-bait songs, right? … right.
“Dear Evan Hansen” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Universal Pictures will release it in theaters on Friday, September 24.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.