Dear Evan Hansen gets a slick, strangely sterile screen treatment, but the film adaptation of the beloved Broadway musical isn't quite as disappointing as you might have heard. Though some misguided changes dull the impact of the original material, director Stephen Chbosky nicely opens up the story of a mentally ill teen loner who becomes part of the in crowd on the coattails of an innocent lie about his relationship with a dead student. Strong video and audio transfers and plenty of supplements distinguish Universal's Blu-ray presentation, but unless you're a diehard Evan Hansen fan, you might just want to stream or rent this satisfactory but hardly dazzling film. Worth a Look.
When Dear Evan Hansen bowed on Broadway five years ago, it instantly captivated theatergoers, who cheered not only the musical's exhilarating songs, but also its frank treatment of the myriad mental issues afflicting modern teens. The show won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score, and Book, and spawned a fanatical, multi-generational following that continues to this day. Ben Platt also won a Tony for his acclaimed portrayal of the insecure, withdrawn, socially awkward - and not always sympathetic - title character, who experiences firsthand how a seemingly innocuous lie can completely change someone's life...for the better.
Anticipation for the screen adaptation, which Universal announced in 2018, ran high, but claims of nepotism surrounding Platt's casting (his father, Marc Platt, is one of the film's producers) and outcry over the actor's advanced age (he turned 27 shortly after shooting began) soon dogged the production. When director Stephen Chbosky's film finally premiered in the fall of 2021, it failed to meet the lofty expectations of the show's faithful throng and bombed at the box office. While Covid surely contributed to Dear Evan Hansen's poor theatrical reception, the brutal fact is this movie about connection just didn't connect with audiences.
Ironically, the story's themes also apply to the mental stresses and feelings of isolation brought on by the ongoing pandemic, but though the narrative tirelessly preaches inclusion, the film remains socially distant throughout. Chbosky, like Evan himself, seems to have good intentions, but his by-the-numbers approach to the material detaches us from its raging emotions, and for a tale that's rooted in teen turmoil, that's tantamount to a death knell.
Plagued by crippling anxiety and self-doubt, Evan Hansen can't relate to his fellow teens or deal with the vagaries of everyday life. Too afraid to participate, he watches the world go by, yet longs to jump into the fray. His therapist suggests he write motivational letters to himself to bolster his outlook, and his divorced mother (Julianne Moore), a nurse who works long hours and can't devote as much time to Evan as they'd both like, encourages him to do so. In one note, he expresses his desire to connect with fellow teen - and secret crush - Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever), whose disturbed brother Connor (Colton Murphy) has severe anger issues. When Evan prints out the letter at school, Connor grabs it and goes ballistic when he sees his sister's name on the page.
A day or so later, Connor commits suicide, and his mother and stepfather (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) find the letter that begins "Dear Evan Hansen..." in his possession. They believe it to be Connor's suicide note and soon seek out Evan in the hope he might shed a ray of light on Connor's dark, unhappy existence. Evan, who barely knew Connor, tries to clear up the misunderstanding, but the idea their antisocial son habored a secret friendship so elates Connor's grief-stricken parents, they dismiss Evan's timid protests. Desperate for details about her son's life and character, Connor's mother plies Evan for intimate information, and in an attempt to both salve her grief and save face, he begins fabricating emails between himself and Connor to document their deep, abiding, utterly fictional friendship.
The lies escalate over time, but as Evan falls deeper into the rabbit hole and paints an idealized, totally bogus portrait of Connor that doesn't jive at all with the boy everyone knew, unexpected benefits come his way. Connor's rich, seemingly perfect parents all but adopt Evan, providing him with the idyllic family and cushy trappings he's always pined for, and best of all, Zoe develops romantic feelings for him. When another troubled student (Amandla Stenberg) suggests starting a foundation in Connor's name, Evan helps spearhead the cause, and when his heartfelt speech at Connor's school memorial service goes viral, the Evan who once wanted to crawl under a rock instantly morphs into a big man on campus.
How long, though, can Evan, whose ego balloons at the same rate as his popularity, keep up the masquerade? And what will the fallout be when his lies are finally exposed?
"You are not alone" is the show's comforting mantra, and the emphasis Dear Evan Hansen puts on the universality of insecurity and anxiety and healing power of connection, validation, and acceptance help it resonate. The provocative notion that a web of lies can produce a fair amount of good, such as helping a family overcome grief and saving a troubled marriage, also carries weight. Sadly, though, the plot of Dear Evan Hansen, despite its real-life roots, often doesn't ring true. From the get-go, Evan has multiple chances to set things straight, and one would think someone as sensitive, morally grounded, and caring as he is presented to be certainly would. Instead, he doubles down on his lies to an almost maniacal degree, straining credulity. His ultimate retribution also doesn't fit his "crimes"; if Evan was bullied prior to his transformation, he would have been crucified after copping to his sins, but instead, the student body simply ignores him.
I haven't seen any stage productions of Dear Evan Hansen, so unlike the show's legion of fans, I can't compare the film to its theatrical counterpart. (If you'd like to read a review by someone who can, check out my colleague Bryan Kluger's take here.) I did, however, watch the movie with my daughter, who saw the show on Broadway and pointed out the changes Chbosky and screenwriter Steven Levenson, who wrote the original book, made to the material. The most significant - and misguided - alteration is the lame attempt to redeem Evan and soften Connor at the end of the film. Putting a sunny spin on a dark story trivializes its message and turns complex characters into cardboard cutouts. Sure, it's nice for everyone to gain a sense of closure, but life isn't like that. Loose ends abound and messiness and despair often prevail. Theater embraces those ambiguities, unpleasant truths, and tragic ironies, but all too often Hollywood shuns them, forcing us to view the world through a rose-colored lens. The film version of Dear Evan Hansen is a classic example of this chronic malaise that has ruined any number of otherwise worthwhile movies.
Chbosky has defended Platt's casting, arguing the whole point of filming Dear Evan Hansen was to document and memorialize Platt's Broadway performance. That's all well and good, but doesn't disguise the fact that Platt has aged out of the role. He's still quite good and does his best to paint a convincing portrait of an awkward, nerdy teen, but just like John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, and Jeff Conaway in Grease, he can't roll back the clock. (At times, he tries far too hard to do so.) I'm all for having original Broadway performers reprise their parts on film, but not at the expense of the movie's integrity. Allowing thirtysomethings Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Idina Menzel, and others to recreate the twentysomething bohemians they portrayed in Rent hampered that film, and Platt can't quite pull off the ruse here. No one can sing "Waving Through a Window" like he can, but giving someone younger the opportunity might not have been the worst thing in the world.
Dever may be 25, but still looks like she's 18 and files a heartfelt performance. Her fine singing is an added bonus - and nice surprise - and she and Platt make a believable pair. Moore shines as Evan's overburdened, caring mom, but Adams' syrupy, one-note portrayal of Connor's delusional mother strikes a sour note.
Chbosky knows a thing or two about troubled youth from such previous films as Wonder and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and he makes some fine choices here. (His presentation of "Sincerely, Me" is especially inventive and energetic.) The soaring Benj Pasek-Justin Paul songs (including a new one called "Anonymous" that will likely nab an Oscar nomination) and solid performances keep us engaged, but a grittier director might have better exploited the material's disturbing underlying elements. Just like Chris Columbus gentrified Rent to make it palatable to mainstream audiences unable to relate to the raw, rough atmosphere of Manhattan's Alphabet City, Chbosky seems determined to spoon-feed us inspiration and optimism (another consequence of Covid?) instead of challenging us to find the uplifting nuggets and digest them on our own.
Though I enjoyed Dear Evan Hansen, at times it felt a little too much like - and pales in comparison to - Mean Girls, a film that astutely examines teen angst and high school's complex class structure within an arch comic framework. More edge and less earnestness would give Dear Evan Hansen the piquant bite it craves. Instead, Chbosky leaves us with a trite aftertaste that overshadows many of the film's nourishing morsels of truth.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Dear Evan Hansen arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve with raised lettering. A standard-def DVD and leaflet containing the Movies Anywhere digital copy code are tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is Dolby Atmos. Once the disc is inserted into the player, teaser trailers for Respect and Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain precede the static menu with music.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks crisp, vibrant, yet oddly sterile. Perhaps the coldness of Brandon Trost's cinematography was an intentional artistic choice to reflect the isolation and dysfunction of the characters, but it keeps the movie at arm's length. Fine details like carpet fibers and facial pores come through cleanly and reflections in windows are crystal clear, but the antiseptic image rarely resembles film. Contrast is a bit flat, but some colors pop, especially the banks of red lockers that line the school hallways. The greens of the park and orchard appear lush, but interior hues lack luster. Blacks are rich, the well-defined whites resist blooming, and excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Razor-sharp close-ups and graphics punch up the picture and various forms of media are seamlessly integrated. Like most recent films, Dear Evan Hansen looks spiffy on Blu-ray, but the transfer isn't a dazzler.
The Dolby Atmos track may lack overhead effects, but it delivers a pleasing surround mix that makes good use of the core five channels. Subtle ambient effects during the opening number produce an expansive soundscape that helps open up this intimate musical, and though the rear speakers only engage sporadically (most notably during the pep rally and texting sequences and when bits of scoring swell to make a statement), there's a good deal of distinct stereo separation up front. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of the soaring vocals and potent orchestrations without a hint of distortion, and sonic accents like microphone feedback, keyboard typing, and screeching wheels nicely punctuate the audio. All the dialogue and song lyrics are clear and easy to comprehend, and excellent fidelity heightens the impact of the musical numbers. While this isn't a demo Atmos mix, it's an impressive track that should please the show's fans.
Several supplements enhance the disc.
"Songs to be Seen" (HD, 43 minutes) - This collection of 11 featurettes gives Platt, Adams, Moore, Dever, director Stephen Chbosky and other members of the cast and crew the chance to analyze, praise, and describe the shooting of all 11 songs in the film, as well as relate their personal experiences and emotions during production. Behind-the-scenes footage augments the interview clips, but does every single song in the score merit such microscopic attention?
Featurette: "Looking Through the Lens: The Making of Dear Evan Hansen" (HD, 8 minutes) - Platt talks about the pressure of recreating his stage role and Chbosky recounts his desire to bring the show to the screen in this slick featurette that also examines casting choices, screenplay and musical development, and the commitment of the actors to the project.
Featurette: "Sincerely, Ben Platt" (HD, 5 minutes) - Platt recalls how he became involved in the stage musical, his connection to the title character, and the challenges of transitioning his performance to the medium of film in this reverential piece. In addition, the cast and crew laud his work and express their personal admiration for the actor.
Featurette: "Stars in Our Eyes" (HD, 3 minutes) - Platt, Dever, Adams, Moore, and others talk about how the isolation of Covid parallels the underlying messages the film transmits and how shooting a movie during a pandemic was both difficult and stimulating.
Fans of the Broadway show may decry the liberties the movie takes with the original material (especially during its lengthy coda), but the screen adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen remains (mostly) true to its roots and stands on its own as a substantive musical with a strong score and affecting universal message. Director Stephen Chbosky nicely opens up the musical and gives it a distinct cinematic flavor, but despite his best efforts and those of a slightly-too-old Ben Platt, who passionately portrays the insecure, anxious teenager he created on stage, the film fails to make the emotional connections the story so vociferously touts. Universal's Blu-ray presentation features strong video and audio transfers and a healthy supplemental package, but unless you're a diehard Evan Hansen groupie, you might just want to stream or rent this well-made yet strangely distant film. Worth a Look.