Letters and Lies

“Dear Evan Hansen” Movie Musical is Underwhelming


Emma Li, Features Editor

Dear Students, Teenagers, Young People, Theatre Kids, Film Buffs, etc.

Public speaking is one of the most common fears, but for others, casual conversation brings the same nerve-racking intensity. “Dear Evan Hansen” (2021), directed by Stephen Chobosky, follows a high school senior named Evan Hansen (Ben Platt). He likes trees, has anxiety and depression, and recently broke his arm. When his therapist tells him to write pep talk letters to himself, the letter falls into the wrong hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), who takes it and pushes Evan in a fit of rage. The Murphy family finds Evan after Connor takes his own life, assuming the letter was written between friends. Evan is unable to explain the truth to the grief-stricken family, and spins himself into a web of lies. Even though the story held true from stage to screen, Dear Evan Hansen was decent and here’s why: The questionable choices in framing, color, and movement were deliberate and consistent. 

The framing and camera shots were well done and intentional. The movie opened with a closeup on the screen as Evan typed, and consistently focused on the small details, such as hands. Framing in a film with a protagonist with anxiety is important to convey lost and overwhelmed situations in a visceral way. Overhead shots were implemented at low points, such as at the bottom of the tree or on the bathroom floor, emphasizing the literal pitfalls of Evan’s life. Occasional unsteady camera movements added to the overall shakiness of the inner turmoil that Evan goes through every day, in contrast to the fluidity of motion in overwhelmingly large crowds. Characters are often the only one in a single shot, and rarely in groups. Closeups of a single character’s torso conveys the majority of the action. The repetition of loneliness through putting characters right in the middle, all alone, or while blurring out the background, drives home the main problem at hand that it often feels as if no one is there, but they are, just beyond the frame. 

The other most striking element was the persistent use of color. Without going too much into color theory, blue is calm and generic, and generally used for sadness, while white can mean purity, or conversely, death. The film is not at all subtle. Evan starts his first day of senior year in a blue and red striped shirt, then changes to the blue striped shirt from the staged musical. The school colors are blue and red, and the masses of students are nearly all wearing blue. Connor’s family only wears white and blue, sometimes with red or burgundy for the hopeful mother. Their house looks like a hotel with a blue and white theme. The outside of their house is blue and white, and so is Evan’s. Evan’s mother, Heidi, wears blue and white scrubs. Throughout the film, Evan wears only blue, white, or grey striped shirts. It is unrealistic and frankly annoying, because not only is he supposed to be a teenage boy, going off of the stereotype of not knowing the “crime” of outfit repeating, his family’s financial insecurity is a significant problem within the story. Most mothers, regardless of financial standing, are unwilling to purchase clothes for their children that look exactly the same.

Whatever the controversies in casting the title role may be, nothing changes the fact that Platt originated the role, and therefore is the role. While developing a character, especially one that has never been done before, an actor has to become the character in mind, body, and soul. Platt’s consistent movements with his hands and face are part of Evan and are not forced in any way. The pauses and hesitations are true to Evan, and do not change. However, this stretched dialogue for far too long to be comfortable, which brings the conversation to pacing. Although it is sometimes necessary to cut songs to preserve a certain length, there are only fourteen songs in the official Broadway soundtrack. If dialogue had been condensed, it would have been possible to keep the songs to bring a faster pace to the film overall, and even include Alana’s new song and reprise, which blended well with the rest of the film, and felt as if it had always been there. 

The film is important because of its message on mental health. Young people make mistakes, and it helps us on the path to self discovery. Also, director Chobosky has experience and success in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), about Charlie, a high school freshman with bipolar disorder. Although the overall message in Dear Evan Hansen that “you are not alone” carried well within the film, I felt very little as an audience member. 

For context on the pre production stages of the film, the show went to Broadway in 2015, won Tonys, and became massively popular with the teenage fanbase. Due to live theatre’s natural exclusivity (you have to find the show somewhere, go to it, and pay for tickets), young broke fans always want a professional (legal) recording or a film adaptation. Unfortunately, the two are not the same. The recordings of Cats, Hamilton, and Shrek the Musical are well loved by fans because the story and music was written for the stage, and are seen on the stage. Audiences can believe that the Jellicle Cats gather in a dumpster for a party every year because they are already aware they paid money to see grown adults in cat costumes. On the other hand, movie adaptations tend to be reviled because it is so jarring to see the artists attempt to pass the singing off as realistic. Les Miserables (2012) is a controversial one because the songs were recorded live on set, instead of in a studio. It was not as polished as people expect in a film, and not as powerful as people expect in a theater.

Although there is much more to a movie than the actors (sorry), the casting process is always given the most attention because those are the faces the audience sees for about two hours. For those who are unaware, Ben Platt was the first person to play Evan on Broadway, won a Tony award for Best Actor for it, and is now super famous. He is also now 28 years old, and no longer within the age range for playing teenagers, especially in film with closeups, rather than people squinting from the back row of a theater. Many people complain that teenagers in movies and shows do not look like teenagers, and that is because they are people in their early 20s who child labor laws do not apply to. It is not a crime to cast a 28 year old as a teenager in a film, but it becomes one when other “teenagers” are in their early 20s and are still squishy cheeked. 

Overall, the camera work was good, the colors were annoying, and however questionable the choices were, at least they were consistent. It has a very different feel from the musical, and is much more like the book (yes there’s a book). The film does not have the theatre magic, but it is overall a decent film.