‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Review: Age, Angst and Actors at TIFF 2021 ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

If you can get over the the age discrepancy, then this cinematic version of the stage musical  offers a beautifully poignant portrayal of young angst over social awkwardness and a heartfelt look at the consequences of suicide. If you enjoyed the music from NBC’s “Smash” or the films “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman,” then put “Dear Evan Hansen” on your must-see list because this is the musical for which the Academy Award-winning “City of Stars” songwriting duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul won their Tony.  

Pasek and Paul won their Tony the same year as their Oscar. 

Much as been made of the lead actor’s age. Ben Platt is 27 and the Los Angeles-born actor originated the role in the 2014 readings, in the 2015 workshops, off-Broadway in 2016 and finally on Broadway. In 2017, at the age of 23, Platt won a Tony Award for the role (Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical) and “Dear Evan Hansen” won Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical (Steven Levenson), Best Original Score (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), Best orchestrations (Alex Lacamoire)  and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical (Rachel Bay Jones).  The original Broadway cast album went on to win a Grammy Award in 2018. 

I saw the stage version at the Ahmanson in 2018 with Ben Levi Ross as Evan. Theater patrons are used to older actors playing younger; few Shakespearean productions feature 13-year-old actresses as Juliet to begin with. Another Broadway musical, “Grease,” hit the silver screen in 1978 with a 24-year-old John Travolta and the 30-year-old Olivia Newton-John. Stockard Channing was 34 and the late Jeff Conaway was an understudy in the original Broadway cast and later played the lead on Broadway but took the role of Kenickie (Danny’s best friend, Rizzo’s boyfriend and the owner of Greased Lightnin’) in the film was 28 when the film came out.

“Glee” fans should know that in 2009, Cory Monteith was 27. Michele Berry was 23. The late Mark Salling was 27. Musicals aren’t documentaries, and I love documentaries. And we’ve been dealing with age discrepancies in the theater, on TV and in films for decades. I do find there is something slightly sleazy as presenting young adults as teens when they are objectified as in “Old.” 

And then there’s the 1978 “The Wiz” with Diana Ross as Dorothy when she was 34. 

Unlike Ross, I may have passed for a minor when I was in my first graduate program in the US and in the UK. Someone may have asked me to pass as a minor at a rugby game and this came decades after a Chicago incident when my 12-year-old cousin was stopped and questioned, but I was not. So enough about the age issue or I’ll have to mention the 1948 Oscar Best Motion Picture winning “Hamlet” where the director, adaptor and star Laurence Olivier was 41 and Eileen Herlie who played Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother was 30.

“Dear Evan Hansen” isn’t a feel-good, nostalgia musical.  The Ahmanson production warned that because of mature themes, it was recommended for ages 12 and over.  You’re not meant to feel comfortable. No one should feel comfortable with the topic of suicide, least of all, someone like myself who has had a close friend succeed in suicide.

In the film, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school student with Social Anxiety Disorder. Platt likely toned down his portrayal as he isn’t playing to the cheap seats. His Evan Hansen isn’t very verbal and fills conversations with nervous and often alienating body language. His mother Heidi (Julianne Moore) is overworked and constantly worried about her son, the every day bills and the bills of the future–college. Evan’s father is out of the picture and his father figure for now is his therapist who suggests that Evan write himself an encouraging letter every day. Evan recently fell from a tree, leaving him with a broken arm that is mending in a cast.

Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) is another misfit, but instead of being nervously apologetic like Evan, he’s abrupt, angry and snarling. Evan has a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). His unacknowledged crush makes Evan uncomfortable when he finds himself in line at the library behind Connor as they both wait to pick up their printouts from the photocopy machine. Connor gruffly volunteers to sign Evan’s cast, making sure his name is clearly written in bold large letters. Connor also takes Evan’s printout of his letter to himself.

Later, Evan is called to the principal’s office where, for the first time, he meets Connor’s stepfather, Larry Mora (Danny Pino), and his mother Cynthia Murphy (Amy Adams). Connor has committed suicide and because the letter addressed to Evan Hansen (but not signed by Evan Hansen), is found in Connor’s pocket, Larry and Cynthia assume that Evan was Connor’s friend.

With his inability to assert himself in most situations and his need to please or at least pacify others, Evan pretends that he and Connor were friends, eventually enlisting his only “almost” friend, Jared (Nik Dodani) to re-write the past by writing emails that detail the Evan-Connor friendship.

In this social media world, the friendship whirls into sympathetic activism that seems to border on narcissistic performative but in the film attempts to show that even the popular kids like school president Alana Beck (Amandla Stenberg) feel loneliness.

At first, Platt’s Evan is hard to watch and one almost winces at every social faux pas and every missed opportunity. However, I didn’t view Platt’s Evan as manipulative so much as a sadly desperate and earnest as a Golden Retriever puppy to please anyone to speaks to him or gives him attention. Teaming up with Alana’s high achiever mentality, Evan becomes the focal point of The Connor Project, a fundraising idea to help reopen an orchard that was supposedly Evan and Connor’s favorite place to meet. Things will unravel. 

There are many brilliant minds and tender hearts out in the world who cannot handle social interaction, for whom words always fail and few people offer patience. But, I have known some brilliant science minds who were social idiots. I’ve taught people who can barely command their only language and suffer from the judgmental verbal cruelty of their more fortunate fellows and I’ve known a kind, gentlemanly young man who was developmentally disabled.

And, as I mentioned above, I’ve also had a friend who committed suicide on a summer day, disappearing from my life abruptly, leaving more questions than answers. I received a call from her workplace friend on a Monday or Tuesday because I wouldn’t have noticed her absence until Tuesday evening. Tuesday and Thursday evenings, I told our mutual friends. I never returned to our Saturday afternoon hangout. Instead, I cut my hair and moved. The next summer, the month of August hit me hard. She was not like Evan Hansen. If anyone, my friend was more like Alana.  

Platt’s portrayal of Evan Hansen is heartbreaking. Under the direction of Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), the growing relationship between Platt’s Evan and Dever’s Zoe is particularly nuanced and sensitively portrayed. Each one ends up growing up under painful circumstances.

As someone whose heart was broken into a million pieces and faced the void of unanswerable questions when my friend committed suicide, “Dear Evan Hansen” was a hopeful note and a means for opening up discussion that no one really wants to begin.

“Dear Evan Hansen” made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival as the Opening Night Gala Presentation on 9 September 2021.  The film had a special 23 September 2021 Fathom Events early screening preceded by a live Q&A with the cast. The film was released nationwide on 24 September 2021. 

 

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