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REVIEW: Movie adaptation of Broadway’s ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ tries to mix positive messages amid difficult subject matter

SALT LAKE CITY — What would you tell an extra-sensitive friend who asks you how they look in an outfit you think is really ugly?  Would you tell them the truth, knowing that the truth could be devastating to them?  Or do you lie and say you think they look great in it, in order to spare their feelings?

Whatever you think is the best way to answer that question may also determine how you feel about the movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen”.

“Dear Evan Hansen” from Universal Pictures opens in theaters on Sep. 24, 2021.

THE STORY

The movie stars Ben Platt (reprising his Broadway role) as Evan Hansen, a high school senior with severe anxiety who feels isolated from everyone around him.  His single mother (Julianne Moore) is always working, he doesn’t really have any friends, and he has a bit of a crush on a girl named Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) but he’s too afraid to talk to her.  Evan’s therapist assigns him to write a letter to himself each day saying why that day is going to be great.

After one particularly frustrating day, Evan writes a letter to himself that isn’t so positive and wonders if anyone would notice if he just disappeared.  But Zoe’s troubled older brother Connor (Colton Ryan) picks up the letter from the printer before Evan can get it, mistakenly thinks Evan wrote it just to make him upset, and storms off with the paper.

A few days later Evan finds out Connor took his own life, and Connor’s parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) mistakenly think Evan’s letter was written by Connor.

In his anxiety, Evan doesn’t correct them and things eventually get away from him when the mistaken belief that he and Connor were best friends starts to benefit him: People finally start noticing him, he becomes part of a student foundation to honor Connor’s memory, Zoe wants to spend time with him, and Connor’s well-off parents treat him like a member of the family.

But because all of that is built on a lie, the question is not if everyone will find out, but rather what will happen when they do?

LIKES

The writer of the play, Steven Levenson, also wrote the screenplay for the movie and apparently included some tweaks to the story.  It has an undeniably good soundtrack, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the guys who did “The Greatest Showman” and “La La Land”.  The big song, “You Will Be Found” which Evan sings at Connor’s school memorial service was undoubtedly the high emotional point of the movie and even squeezed a couple of tears out of me.

Though not all the songs from the stage are included, there are a couple of new songs written just for the movie, including one called “The Anonymous Ones” sung by Amandla Stenberg’s character Alana that I really liked as well.

I thought the casting was solid, though some people have complained that Platt (age 27) looks too old to be a high schooler.  That didn’t really bother me, mostly because he originated the role on Broadway so I figured he could play it better than anyone else, and the fact that older people have been playing high school characters forever.

I didn’t think there was a weak link in the entire cast, but Dever’s and Stenberg’s portrayals in particular really stood out to me.

I really did like the message it was trying to get across about really *seeing* those who are struggling, then reaching out to them and letting them know they’re cared for and not as alone as they might feel.  I could relate to both the feelings of the kids in the movie and the parents as well.  The songs give voice to the anxieties and questions that a lot of kids today feel.

WARNINGS

At the same time, even as I watched the movie, I kept wondering if there was a different way to convey its message more effectively than through a story about a kid who, unintentionally or not, takes a tragedy and lets himself personally benefit from it.

Levenson and director Stephen Chbosky do all they can to create a scenario where you don’t COMPLETELY blame Evan—whose own challenges certainly complicate how you feel towards him.  Evan’s initial choice to lie about his relationship with Connor might be understandable given the circumstances, but his choice to continue and expand the lie is what creates the mess he finds himself in, and prevented me from feeling more sympathy towards him.

But the biggest warning is that this movie deals with suicide, anxiety, depression and grief and that will understandably be difficult for a lot of people.  While the writer also tries to give hope to those who may be struggling with these issues, the dreaded subject of suicide is still an undeniable thread that connects throughout the story.  There’s just no way around it.

It’s also the main reason for the movie’s PG-13 rating, though there is some language (including one use of the F-word) and some suggestive dialogue.

FINAL THOUGHTS

“Dear Evan Hansen” is probably going to provoke a lot of strong opinions on both sides of the love it/hate it debate and I can relate to both.  Having not seen the play, I can only judge the movie on its own merits and it really split me down the middle.  While I cannot deny that I liked some of it, I also can’t ignore that other parts really bothered me.

I sincerely hope that the positive messages in the movie can help someone who needs it, but I don’t blame anybody who thinks it’s a downer either.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is only playing in theaters.  It’s run time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.

Interested in this movie?  Watch the video at the top of the page to see my age recommendations & final rating.


Hopefully you & your family found this review helpful! Andy Farnsworth is the movie and pop culture guy for the KSL 5 Today morning news show and also hosts the Fan Effect podcast for KSL NewsRadio. Check out some of his other in-depth reviews of movies and streaming TV series on KSLTV.com.

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