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REVIEW – “Dear Evan Hansen” – Stage-to-Screen Adaptation Gets (Close) to the Truth

Social anxiety can be an impossible thing to tackle without the right support. And even then, the struggle can still wreak havoc on the well-being of a given person. I try not to be too personal with these reviews, but it’s difficult when a singular moment strikes a unified chord. And that chord echoes one’s own past scrapes with outcast-hood and more present pitfalls with stress. Director Stephen Chbosky seems to have a full hand holding onto that erratic pulse. And his latest effort, the inevitable film adaptation of the successful stage play Dear Evan Hansen, captures the effervescent, unpredictably fragile state of a mind clouded by fear, looking for that motivation to push forward, stay visible when the world around you is either disapproving or indecipherable.

That’s the plight our Evan (Ben Platt) is confronting daily at the start of his senior year. Working thru meds for his anxious swings, nursing a broken arm after a summer accident, and writing small letters to himself as a means of self-encouragement. A social loner type who’s behind the curve with social media. Whose parents are barely present; dad left the picture long ago, and mom Heidi (Julianne Moore) is a hospital workaholic. And whose only true friend is, conveniently enough, an A/V geek named Jared (Nik Doldani). He’s hopeful for any kind of turnaround amid his vulnerabilities. And yes, that does factor in his relationship with any campus bullies. For one, the equally troubled Connor (Colton Ryan), whom at first in solidarity signs Evan’s cast. But then, in a fit of unchecked, unanswerable aggression steals one of those printed letters.

Not much else comes of this interaction until it’s discovered Connor took his own life, and the letter’s found by his parents, Larry, and Cynthia (Danny Pino, Amy Adams). Thus begins a series of events in which Evan is pulled into Connor’s grieving family, perceiving the note as one of desperation, and ultimately one of many, which is far from the truth. In Evan’s mind, anxious as he is not to let the lie grow, the desire to heal warrants the deception being outweighed. In our screen-centric era, even that is an insane challenge to avoid, while the timid Evan pieces together some happy memories of someone he never had the chance to know, but along the way, is certainly creating a better image of his own self in the process. A rather unorthodox method of approach, clearly. Anything to slice through the chatter, the inane clutter of the blogosphere, and be more outgoing.

Now yes, I never quite knew the story of Dear Evan Hansen as it was told on the stage. I was at least aware of its impact on a generation of theatergoers through out-of-context osmosis, through a dignified setlist of songs by the soulful duo of Pasek and Paul (La La Land), a collection of lyrics amounting more to solemnity than upbeat showstoppers. Save for, of course, Sincerely Me, the nerdy ode to proofreading serving also as a showcase for Ryan’s soft-shoe skills, and DoP Brandon Trost’s (An American Pickle) grace with weightless one-shots. The camera work doesn’t have many tricks to it otherwise, even when the other 11 tracks flow with ease.

The soundtrack on its own would play like an indie album working with themes of soliloquy and heartbreak. Platt, ever the professional, doesn’t ever hold back, his energy, his teary-eyed pain rubbing off on his fellow cast members. For the adults, Adams and Moore playing tempered mother figures isn’t necessarily a new hat, save for the burnout they encounter. Even in their facial expressions, that can be sensed. For Evan’s classmates, nerdy Jared takes a backseat to like-minded outcast Alana (Amandla Stemberg). Whilst Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) distracts Evan’s judgment as to the adjunct love interest, the skeptical antithesis for his personal investment in her family’s life. Dever’s quite flawless in dropping that thread, to keep the tension up.

Chbosky, collaborating with original book writer Steven Levinson (Fosse/Verdon), do plenty to make their adaptation just as effective. It’s just as visceral, realistic, often gut-wrenching as the nearest equivalent. That would be the criminally underappreciated Perks of Being a Wallflower. That just happened to be a tale told in anecdotal prose, navigating high school at its darkest, often most sinister, without it approaching utter fantasy. Here, Chbosky’s stepping back into familiar, more realistic territory, utilizing music in a dramatic way without the libretto overshadowing its focus.

Except when warranted, on the big act 1 ballad “You Will Be Found”, the palpable anthem that’s encapsulated this generation of teens. In true musical fashion, that moment caused me to freeze, take notice, reminisce on my own anxious struggles, if only briefly. Through Platt’s eyes, his perspective, his own insecurities in reprising the character he made famous, we see the truest form of soul-searching journey. Complete with an expected level of anguish, and real-life consequence.

Even with one small elephant in the room which I couldn’t overlook, it’s nothing short of genuine to what a real family would be working thru, raising a teen dealing with mental health struggles. There is certainly a suspension of disbelief Chbosky is nudging in Levinson’s key point, the concept of a little white lie growing into a larger deal without reason. Something only social media blows out of proportion at the drop of a hat, and that social stigma only elevates into a moment of downgrade. Misunderstandings evolving into open-armed salute then to light chicanery, there’s a valuable reason why it’s essential for Evan’s evolution. Even still, at first viewing, the morality reached me in the wrong way. Perhaps the rationale will bring me back for future viewings to improve the clarity of the situation.

For whatever other faults or bumps Chbosky faces with this very acute expression of distress and catharsis, Dear Evan Hansen eventually reaches an ending satisfying the title character’s arc, shining a beacon for those in his shoes, those impacted by where social interactions have failed us, particularly in a time where misinformation means the truth lessening in visibility. How the theme of overt deception plays in, that didn’t quite click with me here. What did was the jubilant spirit of healing as Platt walks in choreographed steps, shuffling along through an arduous senior year. Dever and Adams make for the strongest spokes in a large support circle, proving Evan’s quiet quest carries great merit. Due in part because he finally found a way to make himself visible, for those close to him, but especially to himself. And in achieving that visibility, it rocked his core. And it rocked mine, emotions left off guard, and heart stirred to a frenzy. If a similar reaction can hit at least one person despite the widespread nitpicking around this film, its purpose may finally have been found. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)

Dear Evan Hansen opens in most area theaters September 24; rated PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language, and some suggestive references; 137 minutes.