Dear Evan Hansen

I can imagine that this worked really well on stage as the actors can feed off of the audience’s emotions and the immediacy of the theater brings everyone together. That feeling is hard to replicate in a film. Movies have an influence on the audience but the energy level does not change from each showing. The emotions can only flow in one direction, and the somewhat static nature of a film , even one that is dynamic, does not provoke in the same manner. The difficulty this movie will have is less due to the material and more to the medium.

One of the problems that I have with modern musicals is that the tunes are not distinctive and the lyrics don’t lend themselves to singing along. So much of this film is made up of dialogue that is sung and could easily have just been spoken. There are not any extravagant show stopping moments. The closest you get to something that you would describe as a production number is a sequence that takes advantage of social media as a way to advance the song and character. It’s as if this movie is the anti- “In the Heights”.  That movie was all about the wild color and flourishes of a musical, this film is all internal self directed mediation where the songs are basically happening in a persons heads more than anywhere else (there are a couple of exceptions).

The story has it’s heart in the right place. The perspective of someone suffering from social anxiety, depression and ADD, is handled with a great deal of sympathy.. In my discussion of the film on the podcast this week, we had a brief debate about whether the lead character of Evan Hansen is the victim or the antagonist in the story. We all agreed he had the best intentions but we also acknowledge that old saying about the road to hell being paved by those kinds of intentions. For my part, I always try to see the context of events to try and judge actions. Evan’s deception takes place in circumstances where being honest would be hurtful to others, and he can’t bring himself to do that. The pain of the family of Connor is impossible not to empathize with. Connor was troubled, his sister at one point calls him a monster. He was certainly horrible to many others, but that seems to stem from biological and chemical issues more than anything else. The fantasy that Evan concocts would have been fine if he had not crossed a certain line and if Connor’s Mother could just accept the story on it’s face. Like every sitcom over the last fifty years, one complication has to lead to another and in this situation the result is tragic rather than humorous. 

I have heard some criticism of the decision to stick with Ben Platt as the lead for the movie. He is the Tony Award winning actor who originated the role, but he has aged enough that playing a high school senior may be a reach. I did not really have a problem with that, since I have been conditioned by years of watching movies with thirty year old’s playing teens. His voice is superlative for the way the songs are arranged and presented. I may not be a big fan of that style but I can recognize the talent it takes to pull it off. The other actors are also capable in the singing department. Amy Adams is known for having those talents but Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever have not been singers in the past, at least not that I am aware of, they both meet the needs of their parts.

This movie was going to be a hard sell from the get go. In spite of it’s credentials on the Broadway Stage, is is not a very appealing subject to most audiences. In the past we have had a successful holocaust comedy and a semi successful teen terminal cancer love story, so why not a musical about depression and teen suicide? The answer is that people go to the movies for different reasons than they go to the theater. The earnestness of your stories intentions don’t always translate into a warm audience embrace. We can be manipulated emotionally, but we have to be open to that manipulation to let it have an impact on us. Movie audiences are very fussy about what they will let themselves accept. My guess is that most of the film audience, in these times, will not be receptive to this sort of storytelling. 


Please don’t mistake what I am about to say as a dig at the movie, “Booksmart” is well made, targeted at an audience that should embrace it and it is really well cast. It is not however the second coming. Every time a film has some progressive element which appeals to cinema fans, it gets pushed at them as if it is medicine that will cure the reactionary ills that drive the movie business. Trying to force fans of independent movies into a moment runs contrary to the instincts of those fans.  I think that’s exactly what has happened to this movie. Had it been discovered by cinephiles and shared with their own passion, it could have taken off like some of the movies it is compared to. As it is, there was a big launch of this, focusing on the fact that it is a female centered film, and the world shrugged.

The two young actresses who star in this film are accomplished performers.  Beanie Feldstein was terrific in “Lady Bird” a couple of years ago, playing a similar character with a very different personality. Kaitlyn Dever was familiar to me as a long running character on the TV series “Justified” where she was frequently the standout in a cast of very good actors. The two of them together in this film are convincing as off center smart girls who may have missed something along the way. Maybe it is a little regressive to suggest that the road to empowerment might include having a little respect for people who don’t share your perspective. In that sense, I can see how feminists, progressives and others might suffer some shade in the afterglow of the film. Listen to the segment of the speech Molly is supposed to be giving as her valedictorian at graduation, and compare it’s tone to the one she actually completes. Social Justice hearts were probably breaking all over the place.

Director’s often get praise for elements of a movie that they are not always responsible for, typically the script. Actress turned director Olivia Wilde deserves credit for some of the things that she clearly is responsible for. The relationship between the two girls is documented not just by what they say but by the body language they use when saying it. The dance moves, the head shakes and facial expressions come out of a vision of who these young women are.  They are confident but also a little too cocky. They are shy in the way most teens are, they feel overshadowed by pretty people and a high degree of social uncertainty. Wilde blocks some of their conversations as intimate but presents them as public. The most artistic piece of visual flair is the reveal of Amy’s fantasy in the pool at the party they finally make it to. The underwater shot is just the thing to throw cold water in the face of what seemed like a traditional happy ending (although we know it can’t work out the way we are hoping, there has to be a third act shift).

Because I am not in the demographic this film is aimed at, I really don’t get or care for some of the soundtrack selections. Modern hip hop filled with expletives is annoying to me and it is typically annoying at a high volume. The softer indie rock sound seems so wane as to almost evaporate before you hear it. This is a dualistic choice on the part of the film makers and it probably works better for a younger crowd and maybe a female audience as well. I will say that the biggest laugh I had at the theater came when Alanis Moristte’s 90s screed on relationships was being done karaoke style by the wrong people.

I can easily see how this movie could become a cult gem like “Dazed and Confused” has. Audiences who find it now will come back to it in a few years and think of how prescient they were for embracing this film. Others will discover it where most films like this are going to end up in the next few years, streaming on some service. They will howl with delight and wonder how they missed it when it first came out. This will develop a reputation as a hidden treasure, you can bet there will be a dozen hipster critics at the end of the year with “Booksmart” on their top ten lists. I can’t say that they will be wrong, but I can say the movie is a little too smart for it’s own good. Selling yourself as the next “thing” is almost certainly going to doom you to a pile of “New Coke” and “Segway” discards.