Tag Archives: Kaitlyn Dever

In Your Letter

Dear Evan Hansen

by George Wolf

It’s not that Evan himself is hard to like, even flawed and unlikeable main characters can be ambitious and welcome. The real challenge for the big screen adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen is turning the young man’s choices into something truly hopeful and inspiring.

Evan (Ben Platt, whose Broadway performance garnered one of the musical’s many Tony awards) is a painfully shy, anxiety-ridden high school senior getting assignments from his therapist that involve writing letters to himself. Through a convoluted mixup that actually lands as plausible, one of those letters ends up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), another troubled young man who can’t make friends.

When Connor takes his own life, his mother (Amy Adams) and stepfather (Danny Pino) read the letter and reach out to Evan, looking for comfort from someone they believe must have been their son’s best friend.

It’s a cruel and horrible lie, one that Evan ultimately indulges because it makes his own life better. Evan gains friends, he becomes close to Connor’s wealthy family while his own mother (Julianne Moore) works late to makes ends meet, and he gets alone time with Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who just happens to be Evan’s longtime crush.

While the facade can’t last, it’s one that’s chock full of possibilities for another shallow YA specialness parade. But director Stephen Chbosky and writer Steven Levenson do manage to craft moments of truth that help offset the manipulative atmosphere.

Chbosky’s (The Perks of being a Wallflower, Wonder) choice to have the cast sing live is a smart one, bringing a needed intimacy to the music and giving Platt the chance to really impress. But while Chbosky often maneuvers into and out of the music with style, too many of those set pieces seem tentative, with only a few of the songs (“Requiem,” “Words Fail,” “So Big, So Small”) resonating beyond the frequent and generic “I feel seen” messaging.

Platt truly has a wonderful voice, but he has trouble trading what served him so well on the stage for a more nuanced film approach to emoting. Yes, at 27 Platt is a bit too old now for the role, but that’s less of a problem than surrounding him with such authentic screen talent. As Evan becomes less of an awkward outcast, Platt’s screentime with Adams, Moore and especially Dever (who gives the film its most honest moments) only highlights a need for understatement that Platt and Chbosky don’t address.

At a robust 137 minutes, Dear Evan Hansen has plenty of time to grapple with the moral conundrum at its core, but ultimately falls just short of the more universal insight it seeks.

The film shows us teens that are stressed and over-medicated, with feelings of inadequacy compounded by social media expectations and misunderstood by families and peer groups. Then when tragedy occurs, the shock opens avenues for exploitation and personal gain. Evan takes one of them.

There are teachable moments there, and the soaring melodies of Dear Evan Hansen will put occasional lumps in your throat. But is Evan’s journey a thoughtful and cautionary parable, or a shameless exploitation in itself?

In the end, neither. Much like its flawed main character, it’s a mess of awkward and misplaced intentions, as likely to generate facepalms as it is a loving embrace.

Leap of Faith

Them That Follow

by George Wolf

When a way of life not only makes you a social outcast, but presents increasing dangers to those closest to you, what would motivate you to cling even tighter?

It’s a premise that could easily lead to vilification, so credit filmmakers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage for taking Them That Follow in a more resonant direction. Rather than relying on lazy condescension, they want to probe the psychological politics of control.

Mara (Alice Englert) is the pastor’s daughter in a small community of snake handlers in the Appalachian mountains. Her father Lemuel (Walton Goggins) preaches strict adherence to the Word, which requires frequent tests of faith, subjugation of women and shunning the ways of the material world.

But Mara’s interest is starting to move beyond the mountain, raising the suspicions of the stern Sister Slaughter (Olivia Coleman, recent Oscar-winner for The Favourite) and sparking the curiosity of her best friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever).

“Who you choose, girl, chooses your whole life,” Sister Slaughter cautions Mara. And Mara will soon face choices that will alter several lives.

Them That Follow benefits from a beautifully rustic production design and an unhurried pace, building earnest layers of authenticity that mirror a sublime ensemble cast (which includes a nice dramatic turn from comic Jim Gaffigan).

Poulton and Savage are not here to mock religious beliefs, but rather to question the motives of leaders who seek control by division. Followers are belittled by proxy (“They look down on you!”) while leaders make unhealthy demands and wash their hands of culpability (“It’s God’s law, not mine”).

While the film’s concerns are especially timely now, a third act that seems rushed and overly tidy loosens the grip of Them That Follow. The tail here has more bite than the head, but the serpent still deserves respect.