Saturday, September 25, 2021

Center Stage: DEAR EVAN HANSEN and

In Dear Evan Hansen, a painfully lonely depressed teenager accidentally insinuates himself into the life of the family of a dead classmate. A few unfortunate coincidences lets them think he was their suicidal son’s only friend, and the poor kid’s too awkward and inexperienced with human connection to tell them the truth. And that’s the kind of lie that’s hard to unwind if you let it go for even a moment. Besides, he starts to like a feeling of acceptance it brings him. That’s an extremely uncomfortable dynamic, as the fragile high schooler knowingly stakes his emotional well-being on this falsehood, just as surely as his deceased classmate’s mourning family members have done the same unknowingly. The wait for the truth to come out is an unpleasant underlying concern, almost unbearable in its raw potential compounding heartbreak upon heartbreak. You just know it’ll break everyone involved. And yet the whole thing is a musical, with songs from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose work for the catchy Greatest Showman is probably their finest hour. Their kind of soaring pop uplift might make an awkward fit for material that wouldn’t take too much tweaking to imagine as a cold, creepy Michael Haneke feature.

That it somehow worked as a stage musical is something of a theatrical magic trick. Somewhere between the stage lights and spare sets is enough of an abstraction to allow the production to sit with its implications without letting its exposed nerves overwhelm with nagging doubts. On screen, it’s a tougher sit. The close-ups and medium shots invite a closer look at the emotional stakes. And, sure, as slightly mean internet frenzy goes, star Ben Platt, reprising the lead, is now slightly too old to hold the big screen as a believable teenager, especially as the filmmaking makes him somehow look even older. It doesn’t help that his every tic is still playing to the rafters. The rest of the cast is much better, and largely so good at embodying the enormous drama of the moments—Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, and Amandla Stenberg, especially selling some tricky moments of tearful connection. The ensemble is doing work imbuing their characters with such depth of feeling that it actually reveals how thin some of the parts are written. Meanwhile, director Stephen Chobsky—whose Wonder and Perks of Being a Wallflower are better movies about young people’s struggles with mental health—shoots it like a glossy indie drama. Every set looks like a showroom; every tear is shown artfully dripping down quivering cheeks. It makes the songs ever-so-slightly out of place, especially as choreography is generally kept to a minimum, and the lyrics then become plainly presented soliloquies.  

Some of the plot’s turns look flimsier that way, the outsized feelings pushed down into a too-real-yet-unreal box. And the trims taken to the story tighten the focus on the pitiable Evan’s woebegone mistakes instead of expanding into the larger ramifications for the others. (One needn’t look further than the final number, which has been changed from a group coda to a solo.) This all leads to the final stretch, already slightly shaky on stage, playing out as somewhat inadequate to the task of resolving its messy complications without playing like pat absolution. Too easy it was to shunt the hard work of atonement and grace off screen. It’s one of those instances where the movie version can make one almost see why it was a Broadway hit—a provocative stew of topical ideas about bullying and social media and mental health stirred up with strings and sentimentality—without quite feeling the effect.

A far more successful stage-to-screen musical about a teenage misfit is the exuberant Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Based on a glittery pop confection of a British musical, it tells the story of a 16-year-old boy who hopes to become a drag queen. In broad strokes, the picture is in the tradition of Billy Elliot and Kinky Boots, in which a working-class young person pushes against conservative boundaries and pursues their dream against all odds. We have the plucky youth of the title (Max Harwood), who keeps his hopes to himself, mostly. His mother (Sarah Lancashire) is supportive. His best friend (Lauren Patel) wants to understand. But the bullies at his school pick up on his insecurities and his estranged father (Ralph Ineson) is distant from discomfort with his son’s sexuality and interests. The boy clearly loves sparkles and heels, makeup and feminine style. He has for a while. Now that he wants to be even more flashy with it and maybe even get up on a stage in their small-town drag show, why, it’s like he’s coming out all over again. The cast imbues the plot’s predictable moves with a giddy believability, an emotional grounding that makes it feel real enough to its situation and relationships even as it takes off in flights of musical fantasy. Best of all is Harwood, who sells the sense of youthful excitement and experimenting barely outracing his deep insecurity and fear. He hides it well, with the stuff to fake it until he makes it.

The film has been cannily constructed, full of numbers reminiscent of everything from Pet Shop Boys to Madonna with a low-key Broadway sashay and more than a little pep in its jazzy step, stretching out across the screen. It sometimes dips into theatrical fantasy—like a cafeteria that fills with stage smoke as lunch ladies become background singers—and other times is snappily cut and styled like a glam music video. The debut director, Jonathan Butterell, and co-writers, Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, are also the originators of the stage show and do a good job modulating the tone for the cinema. It’s a bit of kitchen-sink realism with a lot of dewey dreamy fizzy uplift involved. As it shifts between earnest drama and flashy dances, simple ballads and sparkling spectacle, it makes a nice balance of realism and fancy. Among the most moving is a sequence in which an older drag queen mentor (Richard E. Grant) sings to the young man about his days marching for gay rights as AIDS approached. While he recounts his past, we go into blurry VHS-style flashbacks haunted by the ghost of his future self. (His younger days are reminiscent of scenes in the heartbreaking It’s a Sin, Russell T. Davies’ recent excellent miniseries about that time and place.) Elsewhere, we have a suspenseful first drag show, parental confrontations, potential setbacks, and an isn’t-it-pretty-to-think-so sweet school dance conclusion followed by a dreamy mass dance number of a curtain call. The cumulative effect is a movie about acceptance that wears its lesson lightly and passionately. What a delight of a sugary (but not entirely sugar-coated) journey of self-discovery. It’s enough to make one believe what one character tells Jamie: somewhere there’s a party that can’t start without you.

No comments:

Post a Comment