Last week, as I settled into a seat at the Princess of Wales theater and pulled out my notebook before yet another screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the nice older couple sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, are you a journalist?” the woman asked through her mask.
When I nodded and said I was, her husband asked me, with a hint of fear in his voice, “Did you see Dear Evan Hansen? What did you think?”
The film in question — a screen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, directed by Stephen Chbosky and featuring the show’s star Ben Platt — had been the opening-night premiere at the festival a few days earlier. The story of an anxious high schooler named Evan who, in order to be liked, lies about his friendship with a fellow student who died by suicide, it had been one of the festival’s most anticipated premieres. Yes, I saw it. Lots of critics did.
I was still wrestling with my feelings about it, aided by a documentary about, of all people, smooth-jazz saxophone star Kenny G. (More on that anon.) I didn’t quite know what the question behind the kind man’s question was. So to spare his feelings, I hedged a little.
“It was okay,” I said. “If you like the musical, you’ll probably like the movie.”
“I love the musical,” the man said. “But the movie reviews were so brutal!”
They sure were. There’s a lot about the movie that plainly doesn’t work, and the critical response hasn’t held back. There’s just no way around some of the film’s problems. Ben Platt, aged 27, is obviously too old to be playing a high school senior, and the mannerisms he adopts to slip into the character of the excruciatingly insecure Evan make him appear older rather than younger. The direction at times seems to make things worse, with lots of close-ups on his face and a muddled sense of space.
I might be able to overlook all this if it weren’t for the actual story. Until recently I didn’t know what Dear Evan Hansen was about, and when a friend explained the plot to me, I was speechless, agog, eyes popping.
Evan Hansen is a social outcast with a broken wrist who lives with severe social anxiety and depression. His therapist has instructed him to write letters to himself — beginning, of course, with “Dear Evan Hansen” — and one day he does, at school, and prints it off. The letter is picked up by Connor, one of the high school’s other (and angrier) social pariahs, whose younger sister Zoe happens to be Evan’s crush. Connor has just sarcastically signed Evan’s blank cast with a Sharpie, seemingly an overture for some kind of friendship, but when he sees Zoe’s name on the letter he flips out and storms away.
Then, a few days later, everyone discovers that Connor has died by suicide.
Connor’s parents found Evan’s letter on him — addressed to Evan — and understood it, quite reasonably, to be a letter from Connor to Evan, a sign of their close and fertile friendship. They come to Evan to talk about his best friend Connor. Swept up in the moment, Evan does not correct them. Soon he becomes the family’s (including Zoe’s) beloved source of connection to their dearly departed and misunderstood son and brother, as well as the center of a schoolwide anti-suicide movement, a role he embraces with mounting enthusiasm.
This is really dark, to be sure. It also seems like it should be satirical, or ironic, or something. Nobody cared about Connor till he was dead, and nobody cared about Evan until he was linked to Connor. The big act-one finale, “You Will Be Found” — which the movie plays as a social media movement that touches the lives of millions around the country — should be the height of dramatic irony. Connor, crucially, was definitely not found, and without his entirely false and frankly kind of horrifying story, Evan wouldn’t have been either. Caring about someone because you saw them sing on YouTube can be meaningful, but we all know how quickly pet causes sparked by viral videos fade away.
Yet the whole sequence is played straight. Everything does come crashing down for Evan in the second act, but nobody seems to learn any lessons except Evan himself, thanks to his mother, who makes sure he knows that she loves him no matter what he does. In other words, he was found; too bad for Connor’s grieving family and the kids at school who were affected by Evan’s lies (especially the girl who struggles with anxiety and helped spearhead the anti-suicide organization). The whole situation is weird and wrongheaded and misses several dozen points. It’s an exceptionally bizarre show.
Nonetheless, the musical was a smash hit upon its Broadway debut in 2016, later winning nine Tony nominations and six wins, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Actor for Platt. Most of the reviews were positive, citing Platt’s performance and the musical’s themes — being an outsider, preventing teen suicide, learning to accept oneself. An enthusiastic fandom sprang up online (the “Fansens”), many of whom hadn’t been to the stage production but loved the soundtrack and felt seen by the story.
Watching the movie, though, I couldn’t write the whole thing off.
Platt’s physical presence is all wrong, but his vocal performance is outstanding; you can see how, with the distance between audience and performer that the Broadway stage affords, his performance would land a lot better. (He did win a Tony for it in 2017.) The rest of the film’s cast is uniformly terrific, especially Kaitlyn Dever as Zoe (she’s 24, but still ably portrays a teenager) and Julianne Moore as Evan’s loving, worried mother. Amy Adams, Amandla Stenberg, and Danny Pino round out the lead cast, and they’re all great.
Then there are the songs. They are great power ballads by power balladeers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a duo best known for their songwriting in Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman, and La La Land. Lift the songs out of the plot and they beg to be belted out at talent shows, or while weeping in the shower, or in the car with the windows rolled down. There’s an incredibly moving love song for Zoe and Evan called “Only Us,” with lines like this: “So I give you ten thousand reasons to not let me go / But if you really see me / If you like me for me and nothing else / Well, that’s all that I’ve wanted for longer than you could possibly know.” I mean! And “You Will Be Found” — “Even when the dark comes crashing through / When you need a friend to carry you / And when you’re broken on the ground / You will be found.” Who doesn’t need encouraging lyrics like that in their life? They’re sincere, ear-wormy pop songs.
The thing is, once you’ve seen “You Will Be Found” performed in context, you’ve popped open Pandora’s box. Zoe doesn’t like Evan for who he is; she started liking him precisely because of his lies. Evan’s been broken on the ground a lot, and it’s only when he started pretending to be someone else that anybody bothered to find him.
Those aren’t the only musical examples, but they’re the most painful ones, or at least they felt painful to me as I watched the movie. On the one hand, I felt (uncharacteristically so) a pretty sizable lump in my throat. On the other, I was livid at Dear Evan Hansen for embedding such powerful emotions — linked to themes I actually believe in, like connection and compassion and easing the burden of those you love in every way you can — into sections of the story that neutered them outright.
So that brings me back to the friendly fellow in the theater a few days later, who loves the Broadway show and is worried about the reviews of the movie — and thereby to the question that’s driven me nuts since I learned what Dear Evan Hansen is really about. Why, if this thing feels like such an off-the-wall story, is it so beloved? What am I supposed to feel about it?
Oddly enough, another film I saw at TIFF offered inroads in answering this question. It’s Listening to Kenny G (stick with me here), a documentary about the smooth-jazz sax crooner that sets out to ask a few barely answerable questions: Why do people love Kenny G? Why do people hate him? And what do their responses to him say about taste, preference, and art?
In films like Hail Satan? (about the Satanic Temple) and The Pain of Others (about women who believe they have Morgellons disease), director Penny Lane has consistently refused to walk the easy route. There are no pat answers in her movies, and Listening to Kenny G is no exception. The sax player himself is the film’s main interviewee, but he’s flanked by music critics who point out all his shortcomings. His music refuses to engage with the history of jazz. It’s facile. It’s febrile. It’s beloved by authoritarians (one of his songs has been used for years to signal the end of the workday in China). It’s weirdly inauthentic. In one sequence, Kenneth Gorlick (the saxophonist’s real name) demonstrates how he produces his music, which involves a lot of cutting and pasting of recorded individual notes into one another via production software, totally upending the fundamental jazz value of live performance and risk and rough edges.
Kenny G’s music is sanded smooth, which is probably why he is so well known and successful. I don’t have to tell you that he’s popular, because you (like me) probably have at least one or two relatives who dearly love him, and who, perhaps, drive you mad.
Or maybe it’s you who loves Kenny G! Maybe you walked down the aisle to his music, or associate it fondly with chill evenings spent at home with a loved one. Maybe you’ve paid to attend a Kenny G concert unironically. What right do I have to tell you you’re wrong?
That’s the question Listening to Kenny G raises and doesn’t try to answer outright. Instead, I think, it focuses on a vital secondary question: Is there a dividing line between “I like this” and “This is good”? And should we care?
Listening to Kenny G rounds the bases on questions that have been asked a lot in recent decades, perhaps most notably in rock critic Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love, in which he confronts his contempt of Celine Dion. (Kenny G also gets a few mentions in the book, in the same breath.) Wilson doesn’t conclude that Dion’s music is good; instead, after digging through the reasons people love her, he argues that we ought to interrogate the reasons for our own taste and acknowledge that not all art is alike or equal, that there’s value to making judgments.
In other words, it’s okay to say Kenny G’s music is bad and that you love it because it makes you feel things. Or vice versa.
Is Dear Evan Hansen like Kenny G? No. Or yes? Maybe. I’m not sure. What I do know is that the unabashed, unironic adoration for such a sincere yet wrongheaded musical is hard to kick at and strangely tricky to confront. I can tell you, in a review, that the new movie is bad. It’s definitely bad, taking an already morally off-kilter story and amplifying its flaws. But can I suggest that you are bad if you like it? More to the point, if someone I love says they love the new movie, or even a scrap of it, how am I supposed to feel about that? If I find myself loving it even a little, how do I deal?
All I can say, as a person paid to give my opinions about works of art, some of which are terrible, manipulative, problematic, and even, at times, plain old stupid: I have to decouple my identity at least a little from my taste. What I like or what you like tells us something about our stories — where we came from, what we aspire to, who we want to be, who we are. But in most cases, it isn’t a measure of our validity as humans. If I find myself liking Dear Evan Hansen, it’s probably because I’ve felt, at some point, like a misunderstood, ignored outsider, not because I can’t see its faults.
Does that mean the things you and I love are de facto good? Absolutely not. I believe, in a deeply subjective and contextualized way, in some works of art being well made while others are not. And I will argue for the importance of acknowledging that distinction. I think the reason we all are obsessed with being critics — and even the most ardent fan is, in the end, engaging in criticism when they support their faves — is that we all believe this.
But the fan/stan mindset fostered by internet partisanship and savvy corporate marketing can, at times, tip over into demanding we make a false equivalence between “I liked it” and “it’s good.” If you like Dear Evan Hansen, its fans may claim, you’re obligated to praise it to your friends (or, in my case, give it a four-star review). That’s just plain silly and dangerous and, in the end, anti-art. It keeps us from frankly understanding the failings and triumphs in art, and prevents us from being able to listen to one another.
Friendly Canadian man, wherever you are, I hope you enjoy the Dear Evan Hansen movie. I hope it stirs your soul. It stirred mine a little, and I didn’t arrive in the theater with the same associations you did. I hope you cry and feel glad you saw it, and don’t feel bad about yourself because critics had some brutal things to say about it.
I also hope you and I both are excited about the power of criticism, when it takes the things we love seriously, to help us sort through our emotions and know ourselves. After all, if I claim to love something and yet get mad if someone else says it could be better, do I really love it? Or do I want it to just serve my needs? Do I think of it as art, something important and transcendent, or just some content for me to swallow whole and leave undigested? Do I take that critical assessment as criticism of me personally, or as a collective project to ask for art to always be getting better?
Boy, that sounds idealistic now that I write it down. But if it’s not real, I don’t know what we’re doing here. Art is one of the few places where we can find each other, meet each other, argue with each other, and start to understand how we see one another. If that means taking Dear Evan Hansen and the music of Kenny G seriously — and seriously grappling with what they miss — I’m here for it. Art is nothing if we don’t take it in with other people. It is, I guess, where we’re found.
Dear Evan Hansen and Listening to Kenny G premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Dear Evan Hansen opens in theaters on September 24. Listening to Kenny G premieres on HBO this fall.