Adapting a successful stage show into a movie is a risky endeavor since expectations can be tremendously high and film is a very different medium. Recent hits like Hamilton and Come from Away have simply presented an edited version of filmed live performances rather than try to create something new. But some of the most popular movie musicals, including West Side Story and Chicago, first debuted on Broadway, and the latest Tony Award-winning production searching for new cinematic life and hoping to achieve a similar legacy is Dear Evan Hansen.
An anxious and depressed teenager (Ben Platt) is given an assignment by his therapist to write letters to himself. When a fellow student, Connor (Colton Ryan), takes his own life with one of Evan’s letters in his pocket, his parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) mistake it for a note left for his best friend. Rather than tell the truth, Evan instead further props up the lie, manufacturing emails and stories about his alleged relationship with Connor as he develops a close bond with Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) and her parents that makes him feel more connected than ever before in his life.
Most casual fans of theater or musicals will be familiar with this story and with its music, and are greatly anticipating the chance to see this film version. What they will find feels a lot like the play, but with a few notable differences. A major narrative divergence may satisfy those who objected to the production’s questionable attitude towards moral responsibility and accountability, while others will be disappointed by the absence of a key song or two, replaced by several new tracks.
In the film’s opening scene, the existence of the camera is immediately noticeable. Frequent movements and quick editing further compound Evan’s sense of feeling lost and alone, and even those without sensory overload issues may feel dizzy or unseen. It’s also possible to see reactions up close and experience an added dimension to the passion already contained within each of the songs. The music fits naturally into most of the scenes, and its powerhouse moments still deliver in an impactful and emotional way.
The only transfer from the Broadway cast is Platt, who at twenty-seven years old now looks like he’s been out of high school for more than a few years. There’s no denying Platt’s musical ability, and he does pour his heart out in each of the musical numbers that he belts to the camera, often getting lost in the mood of a moment. Yet the array of fresh faces around him suggest that perhaps it might have been worthwhile to recast the entire show, enabling a new performer to take on the role and blend in well with the rest of the cast rather than dominate the show.
The ensemble does include a number of standouts, including Amandla Stenberg, whose student organizer Alana is given an enhanced role. Ryan shines as Connor, and Dever, a proven young dramatic and comedic actress, shows off exceptional vocal talents to boot. Adams and Julianne Moore, who plays Evan’s hard-working mother, turn out to be solid choices who infuse their roles with heart and passion, and Pino is appropriately understated in his performance.
This film contains a story about universal acceptance, one that resonates strongly in this format. There may have in truth been no need for a movie version, but this film manages to remain stirring and engaging for the whole of its rather lengthy 137-minute runtime. It will be impossible for those who loved the show not to compare the two, which may yield mixed results, while those who have yet to experience it will likely find it to be a worthwhile and affirming journey with a phenomenal soundtrack.
Dear Evan Hansen made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in theaters on Friday, September 24th.