Opening the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Dear Evan Hansen certainly goes big. The musical melodrama is far from subtle, and really goes after your emotions with laser focus. Now, does it do that effectively? Well, yes and no. To be sure, some at the TIFF premiere were moved by it being the official return of in-person screenings for the festival, so goodwill was in ample supply. Removed from that, however, this is a flawed yet still moving musical that has a hard time balancing its good with its bad. You may well cry, especially during certain scenes, but you also may be annoyed at the movie for making that happen, given what comes before and after.
Dear Evan Hansen has emotion to spare. Whether it’s the plot points or the songs, nearly everything here, save for some misguided comedic moments, is intended to make you cry. On the one hand, you’d have to be made of stone not to at least get choked up, potentially more than once. On the other hand, it’s hard not to get the feeling that this film bungles its handling of mental illness and suicide. The end result is a flick that is almost at war with itself, despite a noble intent.
Adapting the Broadway musical, this drama follows the senior year of high schooler Evan Hansen (Ben Platt). Taking medication for anxiety and depression, he’s been tasked by his therapist to write letters to himself, as a form of affirmation. His hardworking nurse mother Heidi (Julianne Moore) believes that he’s going to have a great year. Evan knows otherwise. His first day goes poorly, and it only seems to get worse when he catches the attention of outcast Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan). Connor reads one of his letters, but hangs on to it after the encounter. When he takes his life, the letter is found and interpreted as a suicide note, addressed to the friend no one knew he had. Told this by his parents Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), Evan stays silent.
Unable to tell the truth to the Murphy family, Evan instead digs the hole deeper, letting everyone believe the lie. In the process, he begins to bond with Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who he’s carried a torch for over the years. As they begin to develop a bond, the school, and society at large, takes up the cause of Connor’s memory. Of course, Evan can only hide his secret for so long, and when that gets revealed, how much more will he hurt this family that he’s come to love?
Some members of the cast fare better than others do here. Ben Platt has seen social media mercilessly mock him for looking too old, but while he’s definitely out of place visually, he knows the part like the back of his hand. Platt’s singing is more effective than his acting, but he’s mostly stuck reacting to the rest of the cast. Best in show is easily Kaitlyn Dever, who is flawless. Some characters are just off-putting, while some of the cast just doesn’t mesh with the material, but Dever rises above. Not only is she the standout, she’s the best part of Dear Evan Hansen. On the flip-side, it’s hard not to be disappointed by Amy Adams and Julianne Moore, both of whom seem really out of place. Other supporting players include Nik Dodani, Danny Pino, Colton Ryan, Amanda Stenberg, and more.
Director Stephen Chbosky clearly loves Steven Levenson‘s stage production (the latter pens the script here). Chobsky is convinced you’ll love this adaptation too, and it’s a bit of a miscalculation. He’s just not the man to make this musical. The songs are presented without much style (except for one moment that will make you roll your eyes), while the melodrama just reigns supreme. That being said, the songs from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are solid, if less than memorable for the most part. Chbosky and Levenson believe in the material, and that’s admirable. Unfortunately, it just never consistently lands like it could have.
Awards-wise, Dear Evan Hansen may prove to be more of a long-shot than a frontrunner. In terms of Oscar, think more along the lines of The Greatest Showman than La La Land. I would be keen to see Kaitlyn Dever get Best Supporting Actress buzz, but aside from that, there just isn’t anything really here that seems poised to make it through the season unscathed.
Dear Evan Hansen obviously has its heart in the right place. Some of the loud sobbing during this premiere TIFF screening suggests its effectiveness to certain folks. For me, however, it’s more complicated. Neither the out and out success nor the unmitigated disaster that a few have suggested, the film is just a mixed bag. The movie works at times and fails at others. As the kick-off for the fest, it’s hopefully just not going to prove to be its pinnicle, either.