This new version of the play about the man who can only woo the woman he loves through letters signed by someone else looks gorgeous, and swooningly romantic. For earlier versions, see Jose Ferrar in “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Steve Martin’s modern update, “Roxanne.”) Peter Dinklage has all of the dash and world-weariness we want to see in the character and up-and-coming stars Hayley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. look like they will cross over into well-deserved mega-stardom from this film. Can’t wait.
The PG-13 rating is for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references
Brief strong language
Adapting a play for the screen is always a challenge, especially when the play is hugely successful because fans are attached to elements of the play that might not work on screen. It is even more of a challenge when the play is a musical. “Dear Evan Hansen” is a multiple award-winning Broadway musical about a teenager struggling with anxiety and depression who impulsively tells a lie to comfort a grieving family. Its transition to film is uneven, sometimes clumsy, sometimes frustrating. One important change improves the original. One important decision not to change weakens the film. And it is too long.
The title comes from a letter high school senior Evan Hansen writes to himself on the advice of his therapist. Hansen is played by Ben Platt, who won a Tony award for his performance in the Broadway, turns 28 this week, and there has been a lot of commentary about whether he is too old to play a teenager. Probably, but the actors were too old to play teenagers in “Grease,” too. The bigger problem is that his performance does not translate completely to screen. He is far more effective as a singer than an actor here. In part that may be due to excessive deference to the performance that has been lauded for years on stage. In part, though, it is attributable to the inherent weakness of the material. The character is written as not much more than a collection of symptoms, longings, and frustrations, and the cinematic storytelling that literally takes us up close and very personal exposes the superficiality of some of the material.
Evan carries his pep talk of a letter to himself to school, where he is alternately ignored or harassed. There is Zoe, a girl he wishes he could figure out how to talk to (25-year-old Kaitlyn Dever). There is a classmate who has to be a little bit nice to him because they are related (Nik Dodani as Jared). There is the girl who seems to have it all together (the radiant Amandla Stenberg as Alana). And there is Zoe’s brother, a troubled, hostile classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan), who misinterprets Evan’s clumsy efforts to be friendly as insulting, and snatches the letter from him in retaliation.
Connor takes his own life. His shattered parents find the letter and think Connor was sending it to Evan, evidence that he had a close friend. Desperate to hold onto any comfort, they beg Evan to tell them about his relationship with Connor. He simply does not have the communication skills to tell them the truth and so he not only pretends that the letter was written by Connor, he makes up a series of stories about their close friendship and what a comfort Connor was to him. He tells Zoe, who is resentful of the trauma Connor’s mental illness inflicted on the family, that Connor cared deeply about her. His ability to comfort Connor’s family perversely gives him a sense of confidence and connection that does more to reduce his anxiety than medication or therapy. Instead of his overworked single mother (Julianne Moore), he spends time with Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), and Zoe, almost accepted as one of their family.
But this cannot continue. I give director Stephen Chbosky (“Wonder”) and writer Steven Levenson, who adapted his script for the play, credit for correcting one of the play’s biggest weaknesses and allowing Evan to more fully accept the consequences of his lies. And I give them a lot of credit for making it clear that one way for Evan to begin to find healing for his own issues is to recognize the vulnerabilities of others. Alana’s honesty in reaching out to him is one of the film’s most powerful moments, and Stenberg once again shows us that she is past promising and already one of the screen’s most accomplished and appealing performers. Dever, also, continues to be a actor of unusual precision in expressing the most subtle and complex emotions. Ryan makes a strong impression, especially in the imagined scenes as Evan makes up stories about him.
It mitigates but does not eliminate the disconnect between the play’s expectation that we will sympathize with Evan more than we do. And I do not think any movie has ever successfully persuaded audiences that what they portray as viral would in the surreal world of social media, actually go viral. But the movie’s message about recognizing the vulnerability of everyone and the importance on empathy for others as a part of growing our own sense of agency, capability, and worthiness is important enough to make up for the uneven pacing and the way that the performances of the younger actors at time seem to be in different movies.
Parents should know that this film includes depictions of mental illness and (offscreen) teen suicide, brief strong language, and some suggestive references.
Family discussion: Reconsider some of the people whose behavior you have thought annoying or difficult to understand in light of this movie. How can you be more supportive of the vulnerable people around you?
If you like this, try: “Wonder” by the same director
Rated PG-13 or some suggestive references and strong language
Some strong language
Some social drinking, some substance abuse
Sad death, emotional confrontations
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
June 9, 2021
Love, loss, hope, dreams, family, community, hope, darkness, purpose, dancing. Very, very specific and ultimately universal. “In the Heights,” based on what will always be known as the play Lin-Manuel Miranda did before “Hamilton,” has been gently streamlined and updated into a joyous post-pandemic welcome back into the world after a year postponement due to the coronavirus. It is touching, ebullient, timely and timeless with an irresistible cast of young performers filled with screen chemistry.
It began in the dorm room of Wesleyan student Miranda, who has said if he did not see roles he could play in the theater, he would write his own. After an award-winning run off-Broadway, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, it moved to Broadway itself, with Miranda in a lead role, and was awarded Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Like the original, the movie takes place over three hot summer days on and around one block of the predominantly Latino community of Washington Heights. It is a place where “You can’t walk two steps without bumping into someone’s big plans.”
There is a little bodega run by Usnavi (named after the letters his Dominican parents saw on a military ship when they first came to the United States) is played by the endlessly appealing Anthony Ramos (also seen this summer on “In Treatment”). He gets help from his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who likes to tease Navi about his crush on aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). They get a lot of support from their honorary Abuela Claudia (grandmother), played by Olga Merediz in her Tony-nominated role. Claudia is like everyone’s grandmother, doling out good food and good advice to everyone.
Also on the block is the car service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), whose one goal is to give his brilliant daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), a student at Stanford, every opportunity to achieve success. Nina is loved by her ex, Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher in her father’s company. She does not want anyone to know what a difficult time she has been having because she is afraid of letting them down.
Both businesses are at risk as the neighborhood is gentrified and ask their owners consider other priorities. Navi wants to return to the Dominican Republic he dreams of as an idyllic paradise. We first see him on a beach like the one he dreamed of, telling children “the story of a clock that was disappearing in a faraway land called New York.”
Kevin will make any sacrifice to keep Nina in school, even though Nina is not sure she wants to stay, and she feels guilty about taking anything more from him.
Someone, we don’t know who, has purchased a winning lottery ticket for the bodega. It is worth $96,000, enough to make any of the dreams of the characters come true, or at least come closer. And, there is a blackout. All of the power goes out.
The story is told with songs and dance that are never less than glorious, especially a number at the local pool that harks back to the days of Esther Williams and Busby Berkeley, and a fair with all of the different nationalities showing off their dances. The beauty parlor estheticians form a Latina Greek chorus, and their musical number is pure delight. The vibrant energy of the film (and I do recommend seeing it in IMAX) is like a burst of sunshine.
That does not mean there aren’t struggles and losses and not all dreams come true. But that is life, and it is the life that shines through this movie that makes it one of the year’s deepest pleasures.
Parents should know that this film includes a sad death and references to other losses and struggles, some suggestive references, substance abuse, and some strong language.
Family discussion: What are the dreams of you and your family? What little details help you assert your dignity? How can we make sure no one feels invisible?
If you like this, try: “Hamilton” and “West Side Story”
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive/sexual references, and language
A theme of the movie, homophobia
Date Released to Theaters:
December 11, 2020
Irving Berlin was right. There’s no people like show people. And no one knows and loves show people as much as other show people, which is why “The Prom” is 20 percent sly satire and 80 percent love letter to the craziness that goes into entertaining audiences.
“The Prom” was a mildly successful Broadway musical about Broadway stars who want to restore their reputations after their new show has a disastrous opening night (a musical about Franklin and Eleonor Roosevelt). They see an injustice on Twitter. A small Indiana high school has cancelled its prom rather than allow a student to bring a same-sex date. And so, not even sure where Indiana is or what it is, they get on a bus, sure that their Broadway luster and can-do spirit will teach those people in flyover country about respect and inclusion. “This will be the biggest thing that’s happened in Indiana since..whatever the last big thing that happened in Indiana was,” one declares.
As you might guess, the Hoosiers are not impressed, even when Broadway leading lady Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) pulls out her two Tony Awards, which she apparently has on hand at all times, in case someone does not who Who She Is. The high school student at the center of the fuss is Emma (a star-making turn from Jo Ellen Pellman) has a bigger problem than the prom; the girl who would be her date is the daughter of the woman fighting to prevent same-sex couples from attending (Kerry Washington as Mrs. Greene). Caught in the middle is the high school principal, Tom Hawkins, who happens to be a fan of Broadway musicals, especially those featuring Dee Dee (Keegan-Michael Key).
The story adds some unexpected sweetness and reconciliation but really the entire production is just a change to have some fun with some inside theater humor and put on a big, colorful, splashy show with a bunch of Tony and Oscar-winners. Streep has a blast as a larger-than-life personality who is only at home on stage. After letting down someone who genuinely cares for her, the only way she can apologize is to reprise one of her career’s signature numbers. Andrew Rannells (a Tony Award winner for “Book of Mormon”) has a huge musical number with local kids in a shopping mall. Nicole Kidman plays the kind of chorus line hoofer who goes from show to show but never makes it into a lead role, and James Corden is a gay man who sees Emma’s problems in very personal terms because his parents rejected him after he came out.
You don’t have to understand the relative status of a Tony vs. a Drama Desk award or remember which musical had the most performances before “Cats” to sit back and enjoy the good-hearted fun, clever lyrics (by Chad Beguelin), and the jubilant dance numbers choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. It most important message is not inclusion but about the power of art itself, especially big, splashy, energetic, colorful musical, to bring us together and heal what hurts.
Parents should know that the theme of this movie is homophobia and inclusion. It includes some sexual humor and some sexual references, some alcohol, and some strong language.
Family discussion: What would you say to Mrs. Greene? What’s your favorite musical?
If you like this, try: “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Footloose,” “Hairspray,” and “High School Musical”
Rated PG for thematic elements and some mild peril
Sad offscreen deaths of parents, illness, depression, fire
Date Released to Theaters:
August 8, 2020
Most of the time I was beguiled by the gorgeously designed latest version of “The Secret Garden,” Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic 1911 story of the orphan girl named Mary Lennox sent to live with her uncle in a vast castle-like home on the moors. She discovers a locked, hidden garden — and some family secrets. But there were moments when I was as cross as Mary herself, the book version that is.
What I loved most about the book when I first read it as a child and then when I read it aloud to my own children was that Mary is that rare heroine in a classic children’s book who is unapologetically imperious, outspoken, and, until the secret garden works its magic, selfish. Anne Shirley, Pollyanna, Alice, Caddie Woodlawn, and Burnett’s unfailingly saint-like Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox had a sour disposition and yet, she was the heroine of the story. This fifth movie version begins with Mary comforting her doll. The book’s Mary would never do anything so empathetic.
So, it took me a while to let go of my version of Mary and warm to the softer version from screenwriter Jack Thorne (“Wonder”), enjoying the movie within its own conception of the story. As in the book, Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is raised in colonial-era India (here set in 1947), then sent to live with the uncle she does not remember ever having met (Colin Firth as Archibald Craven), in an enormous house called Misselthwaite Manor, on the windy, misty moors of Yorkshire.
She discovers a secret garden and two boys, one who seems to be a part of the moors, and a relative who is as removed from the natural world — even other humans — as it is possible to be. She discovers some important understanding about herself, in part through evidence that helps her reframe her past.
Sumptuously imagined and lovingly presented, this is a fine family film, and a good reminder that even being stuck at home can be an adventure.
Parents should know that this film features three children mourning lost parents and a grief-stricken father/uncle. A character has severe depression, which her daughter interprets as not caring about her. There is some mild peril and a fire.
Family discussion: Grief is expressed in many different ways in this film. What are some of them? What did Mary and Colin learn from the letters that made a difference to them? What would be in your secret garden?
If you like this, try: the book and the earlier versions of the story, especially the 1987 version directed by Agnieszka Holland.