DEAR EVAN HANSEN

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Stars: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, Danny Pino, Amandla Stenberg, Colton Ryan, Nik Dodani

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Based on the 2015 Tony award winning musical drama written by Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen deals with some heavy themes like teen angst, alienation, depression, mental illness, suicide and the toxic nature of social media.  

The eponymous Evan Hansen (played by Ben Platt, reprising his Tony award winning role from the Broadway production) is a troubled teenager who struggles with depression and anxiety. A loner who doesn’t make friends easily he is being treated with a raft of medications, and his therapist suggests that Evan write letters to himself about why he should look forward to each day and finding positives in his life.  

But one day he is sick of it all and pens an honest letter setting out his frustrations. Unfortunately, the letter ends up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), another troubled student. When Connor commits suicide a couple of days later his parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) find the letter and assume that it was a suicide note written to his best friend Evan, whose presence in his life they were unaware of. To his parents Connor was a deeply troubled boy who had been in and out of rehabilitation and they are happy to learn that he seemed to have at least one close friend. When they approach Evan to learn more about their son, he fabricates some stories about their non-existent friendship. Connor’s mother Cynthia in particular is drawn to Evan as his presence seems to bring her closer to her dead son. Although Evan tries to tell the truth he finds himself emotionally pressured to give comfort to Connor’s grieving mother. He enlists the help of his nerdy friend Jared (Nik Dodani, from Escape Room, etc) to create a string of email exchanges between Evan and Connor to add veracity to the relationship.  

His well-meaning lies help the family grieve and heal and they invite Even into the family as a way of maintaining some connection with the memory of their dead son. This even brings him closer to Connor’s younger sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, from Booksmart, etc) on whom he has a crush but is unable to act on his feelings.  

When Alana Beck (Amandla Stenberg), another well-meaning student, organises a school memorial, Evan’s heartfelt speech about connecting with someone is captured on social media and quickly goes viral, sparking an outpouring of emotion that inspires whole communities.  

 The lies become bigger, and Evan finds it harder to maintain the deception. But this house of cards will eventually collapse. What will happen to Evan then and how will he cope with the fallout? 

Dear Evan Hansen is an emotionally charged drama that has been adapted from the stage play by Levenson, who has tweaked the material for the film version. The drama is propelled by the songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote songs for La La Land and The Greatest Showman, and they help shape the characters and the direction of the narrative. Director Stephen Chbosky previously helmed films like The Perks Of Being A Wallflower and Wonder, and he is familiar with the tropes of this coming-of-age subgenre in which troubled characters negotiate the difficult and challenging terrain of adolescence and struggling to fit in at high school. His direction is sensitive without becoming overly manipulative. 

The biggest quibble about this film adaptation seems to be that Platt (Pitch Perfect, etc) is a 26-year-old actor playing a character at least a decade younger. But such is his nuanced performance that you soon forget about that issue. With an assured and convincing performance Platt effectively captures his twitchy mannerisms, his gawky nature and his naivety, his insecurities. There is solid support from the ensemble cast. Dever is excellent, while Adams and Pino bring emotion to their roles as Connor’s grieving parents. Julianne Moore brings empathy and gravitas to her role as Evan’s mother Heidi, a financially strapped single mother and nurse who is working double shifts to try and make ends meet. 

Despite dealing with some heavy and complex material, Dear Evan Hansen is a touching and generally uplifting movie musical. And while it doesn’t quite match the success of the theatrical original it is still something of a crowd pleaser. 

★★★☆ 

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