TIFF ’21: Dear Evan Hansen

Directed by Stephen Chbosky (Wonder),?Dear Evan Hansen?tells the story of a young man named Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) who suffers from social anxiety disorder. In an effort to help ease his stress, his therapist advises him to write letters to himself in an effort to get out his feelings. However, when one particularly revealing letter lands in the hands of the deeply troubled Connor (Colton Ryan), events begin to unfold that place Evan in a difficult position. One the one hand, he has the opportunity to create a new life for himself based on a lie or, on the other, he could tell the truth and slip into social oblivion again.

Based on the Tony award-winning musical, Dear Evan Hansen is an enjoyable piece that delves into issues of mental health with maturity and grace. In many ways, it?s unfortunate that the primary topic of conversation around the film has been focused on the use of 27-year-old Ben Platt as Evan himself. And admittedly, yes. There?s something distracting about him in the role. Maybe it?s the make-up or simply the lighting but, somehow, Platt does feel slightly out of sync with the film?s world. 

However, having said that, it?s worth noting that the other ?teens? onscreen are approximately the same age as Platt (and, in some cases, even older). So, perhaps that aspect of the film has been overblown by the film community. What?s more, Platt truly has a passion for the role and does everything possible to fully immerse himself in his character. Whether the viewer appreciates it or not, there is definitely a connection between Platt and Evan Hansen that demanded Chbosky cast him as his lead. (Chbosky has stated that he never considered anyone else for the role.)

Controversy aside, there?s a lot to like about Hansen. Anchored by a truly incredible soundtrack, the film pops along and production numbers mostly have an enthusiastic energy. Performances by Julianne Moore and Amy Adams are solid and the script rarely drags too much. Even so, the most important aspect of the film is its handling of the topic of mental health. Despite its lively soundtrack and lively performances, Hansen is a film which is unafraid to kick at its own darkness until it sees some daylight. With humility and heart, the film takes its subject matter seriously and, in realistic ways, highlight the dangers faced by those who suffer in silence. From Connor?s suicide to Evan himself, their journeys are informed by the struggles that few are aware bubble under the surface. 

Similar to his previous films Wonder and Perks of Being a Wallflower (which he also wrote), Chbosky has a way of giving voice to this generation of youth in ways that highlights their struggles and pain. With empathy and grace, Dear Evan Hansen is yet another project that allows him to wrestle with the challenges of youth without ever trying to pretend that he is one himself. In many ways, one senses that Chbosky?s approach to filmmaking youthfulness is to listen and learn, rather than simply claim to know from experience himself.

As a result, Hansen feels like an opportunity for young people to explore and express the pain that often goes unnoticed by adults. Yes, Evan?s decisions throughout the film are often poor and spiral out of control. However, he also has our sympathy for his wounded soul, especially with the film?s final ?reveal? about his broken arm. Like the cast that he wears, Evan too is trying to protect himself from the hurts that lie within that few others understand. When one considers that his inner pain is mirrored within Connor, suddenly they seem less cruel. Like the one who was lost, Evan too is trying to navigate his own hurts.

His deception of others is also one for himself.

In this way, there?s definitely value in Dear Evan Hanson. Whether or not one can agree with the choice to use Platt (or his makeup), the film?s messages and conversations about mental health, healing and hope add layers to the story which make it a love letter worth reading.

To hear our interview with director Stephen Chbosky, click here.

Dear Evan Hansen premiered at TIFF and is available in theatres on Friday, September 24th, 2021.

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