Tag Archives: Stephen Chbosky

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.

Choose Kind


by Hope Madden

On its surface, Wonder is about feeling like an outsider.

Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay, proving that his remarkable turn in Room was no fluke) is about to start middle school. There’s anxiety enough in that, but this will be Auggie’s first “real school,” having spent his formative education being homeschooled by his more than capable mother (Julia Roberts).

But there’s more. Auggie suffers from a congenital malady which, after dozens of surgeries, leaves him with an unusually misshapen and scarred face. This is why he prefers to wear a space helmet whenever he’s in public.

To its enormous credit, Wonder makes Auggie’s plight universal. Doesn’t everyone entering middle school desperately fear some kind of ostracism? Doesn’t every parent fear the same for their tender youngster?

How much worse will it be for Auggie? Few parents will not recognize the sincerity in his mom’s plea as she sends her son off to his first day of real school: “Please, God, let them be nice to him.”

Roberts, whose work in recent years has radically outshone everything from the first couple decades of her career, offers a strong and believable center of gravity for both the Pullman family and the film.

Director Stephen Chbosky also co-wrote this adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s popular juvenile fiction book. Chbosky waded into similarly angst-ridden waters when he directed the screen version of his own novel Perks of Being a Wallflower, but with Wonder he manages to find an emotional truthfulness missing from his previous film.

Wonder is surprisingly—almost amazingly—understated, given the content. The film avoids many a tear-jerking cliché and sidesteps sentimentality more often than you might expect.

It’s also dishonest— well-meaning, but wildly dishonest. Conflicts are easily resolved, lessons quietly learned, comeuppance generally had and loose ends carefully tied.

Wonder is about as wholesome a movie as you will see, lacking even an ounce of cynicism, which certainly makes Auggie’s ordeal easier to bear. But it’s still a cinematic cop out.