In the world of Broadway musicals-turned-movies there is a wide range of different interpretations and outcomes. The field is full of instant classics like “Cabaret” and “West Side Story,” but also filled with huge misses, like “Cats” and “Rock of Ages.” One thing is certain: it is no easy feat translating a beloved musical theater hit to the big screen.
There’s a laundry list of elements that could hold a production back. The structure and the direction are just too different, there is simply no such thing as a “close up” in theater, and emotions in person hit different than onscreen, to name a few. When it comes to making the jump to film, a mountain of pressure is put on the creative team to deliver the goods.
In the instance of “Dear Evan Hansen,” that team is stellar.
With music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – the duo who brought us “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman” – and a screenplay by Steven Levenson, who wrote the original stage production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” it’s no surprise this adaptation is a success. Throw in director Stephen Chbosky, another veteran who is no stranger to the musical, having written the screenplays for “Rent” and Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” and now we’re really talking. With Chbosky’s sensibilities as a director and his knack for teenage drama and angst, everything that looked like a perfect fit on paper translated to the finished product.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a story about a lie that spins out of control – a lie perpetuated by the titular Evan Hansen (Ben Platt). Suffering from crippling social anxiety and inspired by his therapist, Evan writes himself a letter. Meant to be therapeutic as a message to himself, the letter is deeply personal, but soon it accidentally falls into the hands of another student who ends up taking his own life later that day. The family finds the letter addressed to Evan and assumes the two were close friends, and due to his crippling anxiety and determination not to disappoint the grieving family, Evan begins a tangled web of lies.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding the project about misrepresenting mental health issues and manipulating people’s emotions by exploiting suicide. While there may be a few on the nose moments, you simply can’t tackle these themes without being highly emotional. What Evan does is terrible, but that doesn’t mean the character doesn’t deserve redemption.
Along with Platt returning to the role he originated on stage, there is an absolute embarrassment of riches in the cast. Amy Adams and Julianne Moore stand out as the emotional centers, while Kaitlyn Dever delivers another great and nuanced performance. Amandla Stenberg, Danny Pino and Colton Ryan all do great in their limited roles as well. The age of Platt playing a high schooler is a non-issue with me, as we have seen adults play these roles for decades. Find a new gripe.
Overall, “Dear Evan Hansen” is an effective story about isolation and redemption. With crowd-pleasing songs and devastating performances, there is a lot more to the film than the controversies surrounding it.
The end result sheds light on mental health and brings about positive conversations about how to deal with it. While it may not get everything right, there is enough to make it an enjoyable night with songs you’ll find yourself singing – whether you want to or not.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is now playing in theaters.
Film critic and member of the NCFCA and SEFCA