‘Dear Evan Hansen’ review: Musical goes full melodrama on the big screen

Musicals very rarely make a smooth transition into movies — see Les Misérables or Phantom of the Opera or the recent Cats — so there’s a lot of pressure on Broadway darling Dear Evan Hansen to make the grade.

The Tony Award-winning musical, which follows the story of Evan Hansen (played onscreen by Ben Platt), an anxious, depressed teenager trying to make his way through high school in the age of social media, mostly succeeds as a movie. Interestingly, it could survive without any of the songs and might actually be a better film, but that’s neither here nor there as the songs are here to stay.

Dear Evan Hansen, film version, is melodramatic, particularly when the actors sing/yell/cry into the camera, but even if you’re not one to identify with this kind of movie, you will probably find yourself under its spell by the end. Most of the supporting actors are magnetic, and play a vital part in filling out the story.

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Isn’t Platt too old to play a teenager?

You’d think so, but he manages to pull it off. He’ll be turning 28 on the date of release, so he’s a good decade out of high school. Still, this isn’t something new; Hollywood has been casting full-on adults as teens since the ’80s. It’s a minor quibble that doesn’t detract from the movie, and, to be honest, critics of the film are focusing on this non-issue too much.

Many critics are deriding the movie. Are they justified?

Critics have publicly aired their feelings about the movie: some are theatre fans and say it’s not loyal to the play, others think it’s a weak display of the trials of mental illness, and others still say one of the main characters gets short shrift (I won’t reveal here as to not spoil). It’s definitely not a perfect film, and probably goes on a bit too long — it’s longer than the actual play — but it’s a telling tale, particularly in regard to social media and our at-a-distance culture.

When something awful happens to someone in the movie, the teens are quick to “support” the cause, but are they doing it for genuine reasons or are they merely taking part in order to further themselves? Our answer might be revealed when we see people taking selfies in front of the character’s locker to post to social media. “Doing it for the ‘gram” or “doing it for the likes” — either way, it’s a clear depiction of our current reality.

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I will concede the movie stumbles when it deals with suicide and suicidal ideation. It’s far too surface-brush, almost glossed over by song, and loved ones are too quick at overcoming grief.

You said the supporting cast is great. How so?

The biggest standout to me, although her character is thinly drawn, is Amandla Stenberg as overachieving student Alana Beck. You might remember her from her starring role in 2018’s The Hate U Give, and it’s nice to see her on-screen charisma isn’t limited to that movie. She has a presence that’s tough to describe, but whenever she’s a part of the proceedings, things perk up. Vets Julianne Moore, Amy Adams and Danny Pino, as the parents, all excel in their parts and, excluding Adams, surprise as relatively strong singers.

You’re not selling me here.

At the risk of aging myself, I often wonder what it would be like to be in high school with social media. It sounds awful, to be honest, and I’m not sure how any teenager navigates that kind of pressure now. Dear Evan Hansen addresses this first and foremost, and the whole movie’s proceedings are dependent on social media and how people react on the various platforms. What is performative, then, and what is sincere? These are questions the movie brings to the fore, and in our world today that is incredibly important, especially for those with a mental illness they feel pressure to keep hidden. For those kids and teens, this story may be a valuable lifeline.

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So what’s the bottom line?

Definitely not for everyone, Dear Evan Hansen is an emotional ride. Some folks will find it a tremendous bore (some moviegoers have even described it as “hilarious”), while I suspect for others it’ll speak to them, especially those who struggled (or are struggling) with mental health issues at that age. Bring some tissues along, too, because if you’re in the latter camp, there will be tears.

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is now playing in theatres across Canada. Please consult your local listings for more information.

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