While watching this flick, I was completely unaware of the so-called controversy, of Ben Platt being too old for the role of a high-schooler and one of the producers of the show being Ben’s father and therefore inciting nepotism. And I find those concepts quite ridiculous. Rebel Wilson was in her early thirties, older than Platt is here, when she got cast as a freshman college student in Pitch Perfect, therefore theoretically just a year older than Evan, and there are loads of other examples out there. Plus, not only is Ben Platt very familiar with this role, but his father has produced dozens of popcorn worthy films. Paul W. S. Anderson cast his daughter as The Red Queen in the last Resident Evil movie and you never heard backlash from that. All the criticism I’ve heard is flat-out silly. With that introduction in mind, here are my thoughts – and, ahem, criticism – of the movie adaptation of the beloved musical.
I’ll start my synopsis by saying this: If I one day ran into Evan (Ben Platt) in the park where he was working last summer and knew how socially hopeless he is, I’d give him a pat, reminisce to him about my days in his shoes, and let him know that, “kiddo, I had freaked-out thoughts about high school all the time, and an outcast like me turned out more than fine.” And I thought I was shy and paranoid! He’s as precious as a shortbread cookie. As he walks (sings) his way through the first day of 12th grade, so invisible and afraid that I can only imagine the nightmares of his last three years as a non-senior. His only friend Jared (Nik Dodani from Atypical) being a family friend and thereby, in his words, not counting, his palms unable to help but shake at the idea of walking up and talking to anyone, least of all his crush Zoe Murphy (a beautiful Kaitlyn Dever), the first day seems like another chapter of being alone, until something happens in the library that changes his life, with no exaggeration, forever.
The best friend in the world for him, is “Me”. His therapist has been telling him to write notes to himself, as Dear Evan Hansen, and signed, Your best friend in the world, Me. He prints one out, and a jock named Connor, Zoe’s older brother (Colton Ryan) decides to be nice and get his note for him from the printer, after being the only one to sign his arm cast, but, thinking by some rough coincidences Evan was playing a prank on him when he reads the letter, he storms off with it. Days later, Evan is called into the office and meets Connor and Zoe’s parents, Larry and Cynthia (Danny Pino and Amy Adams), revealing Connor hung himself days ago, and the only thing left on him was that letter he snatched. Thing is? They think Connor wrote it, addressing it to Evan, and that the letter proved they were secret close friends. Evan ends up finding himself in the middle of a broken family trying to believe they weren’t bad parents, and he decides to make efforts to convince them Connor was not really so depressed. With that, we get a story told through characters that belt out into songs that are obviously not actually happening. Though it’s relatively easy to figure out what’s really being said in some version of the Dear Evan Hansen movie that was never a musical and therefore another high school movie that doesn’t have this stand-out Grease-esque feature.
This movie may have had a few unfair advantages from me going in. One is I knew the story prior, and I love it. I didn’t want to hate a movie about a shy outcast trying what he can to do right on a damaged family. Another is, when the last stage-musical-turned-movie you saw was Cats, there’s nowhere to go but up.
I do actually really like some musicals with constant singing (look at the first two recommended movies I give at the end of this review). But in both of those movies, and this one, and others, I have always given the same criticism; you should’ve cut about three or four songs. Maybe it’s me, not them, and don’t get me wrong. Some songs in this movie are awesome. But too much singing always, always, leaves me wondering what more could’ve been explored or given more pure moments if they chose not to talk it over in Do-Re-Mi format. Sometimes we need a break to cool off with the characters, then we can therefore appreciate the next song more. And this movie has these moments of quiet pondering, to be fair. A humungous praise I can give is as a 137 minute musical, I truly did not mind the time.
As we go through Evan’s dilemma, he learns to speak up for those feeling alone, he gains confidence (but not overboard) to participate when it’s the right thing to do, and he finds out he didn’t really have to be so afraid to be himself. While definitely sappier than teenage trauma stories like 13 Reasons Why, it will definitely speak in its various tunes to teenagers feeling the world is too cruel to listen to them or too big for them to cope with. And the last ten seconds of Sincerely Me? Best and catchiest way possible to start the big Connor-Evan BFF charade. I heard how the songs are integrated from the musical, so I have no qualms about hearing a song all over again or any songs omitted from the original source material.
The grade I had in mind for most of this movie was a B+. Considering musicals aren’t my genre, I was not only having a lot of fun but the actors were actually getting me choked up. I even had to look away a few times, not wanting to witness the sadness. Every performance is golden. Whenever anyone sings, there are always breaks or imperfect beats, implying they don’t really take vocal courses every second Sunday. When Ben’s arms shake and he has no clue what the right thing is to do, I never doubted him. Platt performs Evan Hansen with so much honesty, you’d think he could never actually be some breakout movie star with millions of followers or a large influence. Amandla Stenberg as the school activitst and Amy Adams as Connor’s mother are standouts. If you thought they were already incredible, you’re in for a surprise at what they swing at you like two baseball bats of heartache. What ultimately drags it all down is a final feeling there could’ve been less songs and an even more important plot element is omitted. If you ask me, it’s not a television show, live musical or movie that’s the best format for this story. It’s book form. The book the creators compiled and I just published a review on was not only a wonderful surprise, it had a nifty tool to allow us to hear from the ghost of Connor responding to what he sees is happening. Which was my favourite part of the book. We got to know exactly why Connor hung himself, which is actually a stomach-dropping tragedy I was really hoping to see in this movie, and when I finished the book knowing he appreciated all Evan had done, my heart soared a little. I have to ask this. In a movie, you do have the ability to fabricate a ghost. Heck, in a stage musical, you have the ability to tell flashbacks. Whose idea was it to not have Connor and Miguel’s backstory in this??
So, when I think of the best high school movies, the Dear Evan Hansen movie will not be an immediate thought, but if you know what you’re in for, you might like it the same way thousands have loved the original stage production. And something positive to cap off on? Things aren’t all gooey gumdrops by the end. Things remain rocky after the hardships. That’s real life. It’s not pretty, but sometimes, as sad as it is, not all stories can give out full unadulterated hope.