Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB
USA, 2021. Marc Platt Productions, Perfect World Pictures, Universal Pictures. Screenplay by Steven Levenson, based on the musical stage play, music and lyrics by Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, book by Steven Levenson. Cinematography by Brandon Trost. Produced by Marc Platt, Adam Siegel. Music by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, Dan Romer. Production Design by Beth Mickle. Costume Design by Sekinah Brown. Film Editing by Anne McCabe.
There is certainly something daring and admirable about musicals that focus on uncomfortable and unpleasant subject matter within the confines of a genre usually associated with pleasure and exuberance. Such has been the case relatively recent, highly successful Broadway shows like 2008’s Next to Normal and 2015’s Dear Evan Hansen, which took increasingly mainstream conversations about mental health and set them to music and lyrics in a manner that audiences responded to with thoughtful enthusiasm. Whether or not it moves you though, a person singing through a confession about suicide on a musical stage is avant-garde and boundary-breaking, while on film it must be done with expertise, perhaps with a meta-awareness of the medium itself, to come across successfully and not just seem like your favourite drama show is being interrupted by the indulgences of solipsistic musical theatre kids. Such is the case with this well-intentioned but ultimately lifeless cinematic rendering of Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Tony musical about a teenager (Ben Platt reprising his Tony-winning role) struggling with social anxiety and depression who accidentally promotes himself to the front line of a tragedy that has nothing to do with him. His therapist encourages Evan to write letters to himself to help him externalize his fears about connecting with others, and he is distraught when the school’s problem kid Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) finds a copy of one of these letters and steals it. Two days later, Connor’s parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) find Evan and tell him that Connor has committed suicide and hand him the letter which they assume their son, who they thought had no friends, wrote to him. Wanting to clear up the misunderstanding, Evan instead becomes a surrogate son to this grieving couple, whose daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) he has a crush on, making up emails and stories about his and Connor’s friendship that brings comfort to a who family who never could connect with their emotionally complicated child. Fellow student Alana (Amandla Stenberg) starts a school support group for emotionally troubled teens in Connor’s name and makes Evan its figurehead after a speech he delivers at a memorial goes viral, and the lies spiral out of control until he is eventually forced to tell the truth to the Murphys as well as his own overworked single mother (Julianne Moore in perfectly frazzled busy mom hair).
This should be the perfect set-up for a tender and touching examination of the difficulties of finding your place in an increasingly noisy and high-pressured world, but it appears that Levenson has opened up his screenplay to make the songs the exception and not the rule, relying instead on a lot of heavy drama being directed by Stephen Chbosky, a filmmaker whose previous two films (The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Wonder) are among the most unintelligent renderings of sentimentality of their time. The kind of admirable emotional restraint that often pierces the heart in stories of people struggling with their pain is ignored in favour of two and a half hours of people’s amply available, trembling sobbing faces in close-up, singing songs that none of them seem to realize all the sound the same and which the actors not usually associated with musicals look like they’re praying nervously to get over with as soon as possible. Moore alone makes an effort to be a real person and not a symbol of tear-jerking indulgence, putting on a game face and avoiding the soap opera-level vulnerability being disingenuously performed by everyone else while experiencing her travails. Adams always seems like she’s playing off a CGI character, widening her eyes and taking overly calculated deep breaths as if a director is screaming at her to believe that a tennis ball is a dinosaur, while Platt, apparently worried that he’s too old to play a high schooler (he’s not, actually), opts for an hairstyle that has the opposite effect (the one he had in the play was fine) and overdoes his twitchy mannerisms to the point that he, instead of coming off an awkward teenager, gives the impression of a kitten being held under a heat lamp.
Evan’s deception might make him a hypocrite but everyone else around him isn’t much better, students take selfies at Connor’s locker and post moving tributes despite having made fun of him while he was alive, and parents live in denial about whatever ways in which they failed to reach him; Chbosky never makes any notable criticism of this, concerned as he is with making sure everyone mutters their lines under their breath (and sings much the same way) to always appear sympathetic. The grief being presented is cultural, not personal, people have no emotional realizations but instead react to their perpetually pinging cell phones, their preoccupation not with how they feel but how they are being perceived by others. Ultimately these characters fail to make their way into our hearts, sadness is the story’s theme but not something that anyone in the story is willing to ever examine specifically or directly, which is a lot to ask of a movie that goes well past the two hour mark and never tries to go very deep.
Toronto International Film Festival: 2021