By John H. Foote
Why did I get the nagging feeling I was watching an after school special?
Throughout Dear Evan Hansen, based on the Tony Award winning musical, I had this constant sense I was watching a kids level After School Special with major movie stars sprinkled throughout the film for mainstream appeal.
In a year chock full of musicals, some brilliant (In the Heights, Cyrano) others still to come, (West Side Story) and now this.
If TIFF is hellbent on celebrating cinema, and I believe they are, this is not the way to begin their annual film festival. Rescreening a great Canadian film would have been a better idea than this. You can feel when a Gala screening is going wrong by the audience, the restlessness, the odd silences. I remember watching All the King’s Men (2006), the introduction of that incredible cast, Anthony Hopkins, Patricia Clarkson, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini and Sean Penn, I mean my God, the stars alone should have made this film a massive work. When the lights hit the seating area of the stars as the credits rolled to polite applause, no one was there.
The actors knew how bad the film was and left. Got the hell outta Dodge.
I wonder if the actors in Dear Evan Hansen know?
There is no doubt in my mind that Dear Evan Hanson fails miserably as a film, and I cannot fathom why the TIFF programmers chose this as their opening night film. I can think of 20 other films here in various programs and another 10 that TIFF did not get that would have made a stronger opener. Yet just as much as I did not care for the film, the effort is there, they tried to make something special, it just did not work.
To the film.
Should suicide be used as a plot device, something to drive the narrative? I personally believe teen suicide is far too big a problem to be used in a film like this. There are errors in judgement, mistakes made, betrayals, and lies, which to me make up the world of high school students on a good or bad day, and all of them are right here in this film. In the non-musical, The Perks of a Wall Flower (2014), we saw a beautifully, realistic portrait of life as high schoolers, with excellent performances from the actors. Steven Chbosky, who guided the actors through that film, is the director here too, but I think the story already was too flawed for him to improve it, though certainly aspects have been made stronger.
When the parents of Connor, the young boy who takes his life, find a note written by Evan, as part of the therapy his mother (Julianne Moore) insists upon, they believe their son wrote it and that Evan was his best friend. Evan (Ben Platt) goes along with it because, one, he is embarrassed, and two it gives him a degree of celebrity and the attention he so desires. He becomes close with the dead boy’s parents, portrayed by Amy Adams and Danny Pino, and especially intimate with their daughter, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who knew who and what her brother really was. “Connor was a bad person” she says, which speaks volumes. Was the bullied kid a bully himself at home?
There are so many questions and answers that could have been posed but are not. That said there are moments that are glorious, especially from the cast though most are too old to be playing high schoolers. The finest is Amandla Stenberg, cast as Connor’s best friend, his real best friend, who despite whatever flaws he had, genuinely mourns his death.
Amy Adams is wonderful in her scenes, so good we miss her when she is offscreen. I loved Kaitlyn Dever, she has such soul in her work, even when portraying a bad ass, as she did in the superb TV series Justified, as a budding drug lord in Kentucky.
For me, Ben Platt never finds Evan, never brings to us his soul on the screen. He takes terrible advantage of a terrible event and instead of coming clean, as he should have, ends up making the wound all that deeper.
Chbosky tries hard to bring diversity into the film (watch the myriad signs in the background) but like others before and those yet to come does not get there. He tries hard to make an important film and instead his movie comes across as self-important, condescending, talking down to us.
Too bad to kick off the festival with this. It just does not work.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.