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We all know art can be healing. But the creators of the new film Dear Evan Hansen, based on the lauded stage musical, take that job literally. In roundtable interviews just before the film opened the Toronto International Film Festival, director Stephen Chbosky, writer Steven Levenson and six of the stars – Ben Platt, (Evan); Julianne Moore (Evan’s mom); Amandla Stenberg (Evan’s friend); Kaitlyn Dever (Evan’s crush, Zoe); and Amy Adams and Danny Pino (Zoe’s folks) – were eager to discuss the film’s mission: to shore up the lonely and spread the gospel of tolerance. But should art declare its intent to change lives? Can a film have a mandate – an unsubtle one to boot – yet still be effective?
The story starts when Evan, a high-school misfit who suffers from social anxiety and depression, has a chance encounter with troubled classmate Connor (Colton Ryan, who also played the role on Broadway), just before Connor kills himself. A misunderstanding leads everyone to believe that Evan and Connor were friends. Thrust into sudden popularity at school, and into the role of comforting Connor’s family (Zoe, her mother and stepfather), Evan clammily spins a series of lies. After performing the show’s most inspirational song, You Will Be Found, at Connor’s school memorial, he even goes viral. (Sample lyrics: “Have you ever felt like you could disappear/Like you could fall and no one would hear? … When you’re broken on the ground/You will be found.”) But soon his lies catch up with him, and his façade crashes down.
The songs and dialogue are unabashed in their quest to be universal:
“I’m waving through a window, can anyone see?”
“I wish I was part of something.”
“We’re anonymous, a lot of people feel like us.”
“What if everyone’s secret is that they have a secret side?”
The message is sincere, if sincerely on the nose: “No matter how hard it gets, keep going.” And Chbosky is no stranger to inspirational material: He wrote the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and then wrote and directed the film version; he wrote the screenplay for the film Rent; and he wrote and directed the film Wonder, about a boy with facial difference.
Over a 45-minute Zoom chat in which 15 journalists got to ask one question apiece, the interviewees were happy to confess and to cheerlead in equal measure. “I was hard on myself when I was in high school,” said Sternberg (The Hate U Give). “I was self-critical, uncomfortable in my skin, unsure of how to navigate the world, had a hard time making friends. In those moments, it can feel the world is crashing in on you and you’re not going to feel any escape from it, but that’s just because you don’t have any context yet. As you get older the context for how you feel becomes so much bigger, there are so many things you’ll experience, so many directions you’ll head, people you’ll find who accept you for you, so many parts of yourself you’ll meet. If you hold on, so many exciting things will come to you in time.”
“Adolescence is such a traumatic time for human beings,” Moore agreed. “You’re transitioning so quickly, trying to develop into this person you will become. It’s important for teenagers to see themselves reflected [in culture], and to see that anxiety, depression and low self-esteem are human issues that happen to everyone to varying degrees – to destigmatize them.”
Dever talked about the importance of the film’s levity and message of resilience. Adams and Pino talked about its lesson of giving people space to grieve as they wished. Several actors said Chbosky gave them shrink-y direction that made them cry: “It’s time to say goodbye to Connor here,” to Adams; and “You’re a good father,” to Pino. Everyone used words such as “cathartic” and “shared humanity” and “communal experience.”
But no one felt the weight of responsibility like Platt, who played Evan on stage about 700 times, and won a Tony for it. After nearly every performance, he would receive feedback both written and in person “from people whose lives were tangibly altered by the piece,” he said. Taking the show’s message globally with the film “was my driving motivation. I felt a lot of internal pressure to deliver a performance that would have a similar impact. I still have a note an anonymous person left at the stage door: ‘Because of this show I didn’t let go.’ I keep that note with me at all times.”
This whole group interview was feeling very trust-exercise-at-theatre-camp. Finally, it was my turn to ask a question, to Levenson and Chbosky: When an inspirational moment goes viral, or an inspirational story enters the pop-culture canon, can the response be sincere even if the moment is fleeting or the art literal?
“When we first started writing the show, a Christian rock musician said he was dying of cancer,” Levenson replied. “He went through a whole process: lost weight, lost his hair. People were moved by him. And it turned out to be a hoax. But what stuck with me was, even though his story wasn’t true, the people who responded to him, what they experienced was real. They found a real connection, a real sense of unity, a sense of belonging and meaning. That paradox remains really interesting to me. I don’t know if it’s possible. It’s certainly easier not to find real connection, community, real anything, online or in art.”
“People’s grief and loneliness, and the way they connect to grief through art, is not false, even if the story is,” Chbosky added. “My best line from The Perks of Being a Wallflower is, ‘We accept the love we think we deserve.’ The best art takes something complicated and turns it into something digestibly simple.”
I’m not sure I believe that. But Dear Evan Hansen seems to.
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