Dear Evan Hansen

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: The PG-13 rating is for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language

Copyright Universal 2021
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

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Based on a play movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Musical School Stories about Teens

Eighth Grade

Posted on July 12, 2018 at 3:02 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual material
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional situations, sexual predation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 13, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 8, 2018
Copyright A24 2018

Maybe “Eighth Grade” should come with a trigger warning. It is so viscerally authentic to the experience of being in middle school that for a moment I felt like I was standing in the lunchroom clutching my tray, desperately hoping that I would (a) be invited to sit with anyone and (b) become invisible, swallowed up by the ground, magically either five years older or younger, or all of those at once.

There’s a reason that even people well into their fifth and sixth and seventh decades still wake up at night after an anxiety nightmare about middle school. Those moments of hormonal, emotional, and cognitive upheavals that cruelly hit us just after we master childhood and make us certain that the adults around us are lame, that we are less lame but somehow lamer than we would like people to think of us as — for most of us, there is nothing as humiliating in any aspect of adult life that is as excruciatingly anxious as any given day in middle school.

Bo Burnham, who starting posting funny videos on YouTube when he was a teenager and became a very successful stand-up comic, is still in his 20’s, so his memories of the teen years are very accessible. Furthermore, he has been very frank about his struggles with anxiety including devastating stage fright. So he naturally turned to watching online videos of young teenagers, and realized that they may not be very sophisticated or articulate, but they are aspirational and brave.

And so we meet the movie’s main character, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she is recording a very aspirational and very brave video about “being yourself.” She is not exactly herself in this video, but she is both the person she would like to be and the person she would like to listen to for guidance.

It is the last week of eighth grade, and there is agony after agony. She tries to talk to the alpha girls. She tries to talk to the boy she likes. She sits through a hilariously painful video about puberty, with a woman who assures them that this experience “is going to be lit!” She is invited to a pool party the hostess does not want her at by the girl’s mother, and she goes to it. Her loving but hapless single dad impinges on her life just by existing and even worse, he wants to TALK to her! And LOOK at her! And tell her she’s cool!!

Kayla gets a glimpse of her past when the “time capsule” she created on the first day of middle school, addressed confidently “to the coolest girl in the world” contains a video she made with her hopes and predictions for where she’d be at graduation. And she gets a glimpse of her future when she “shadows” Olivia, a friendly high school girl (Emily Robinson). We can see that Olivia is not nearly as confident as she would like to appear, but she makes Kayla feel accepted and as though there is a path for her.

SPOILER ALERT: Normally I would not do this, because I try hard to avoid spoilers, but I feel in this case I can mention that while Kayla teeters on the edge of some very bad decisions, she comes out of this okay.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong and crude language and sexual references and a boy tries to pressure Kayla for sex.

Family discussion: If you made a video message to be opened in four years, what would you say? Has social media made middle school easier or harder?

If you like this, try: Rookie’s “Ask a Grown” series and my interview with Burnham, Robinson, and Fisher. There are actually a couple of real-life movies with kids interviewing their older selves, here and here.

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies -- format School Stories about Teens

Lady Bird

Posted on November 28, 2017 at 10:04 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 5, 2018
Copyright 2017 A24

“Lady Bird? Is that your given name?” the patient priest who is directing the high school play asks at an audition. “Yes.” “Why is it in quotes?” The sign-up sheet reads: Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). “I gave it to myself,” she says. “It’s given to me by me.” Perhaps she selected the name because she is getting ready to fly away and the thought thrills and terrifies her.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is a senior in high school, on the brink of that moment when we are heady at the notion of inventing ourselves. We meet her coming home from a trip with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) to visit colleges near their home in Sacramento. They weep silently together at the end of an audiobook and bicker about the things that mothers and teenage daughters bicker about. Lady Bird (as we will call her) wants to go to college in the East, “where writers live in the woods.” Her mother, a nurse, is trying hard to balance the need to be practical about finances — Lady Bird’s father is about to lose his job — with the parental instinct to protect her daughter from the most unpleasant realities of life, including her parents’ inability to make everything work out. Fortunately, if frustratingly, Lady Bird has retained the solipsistic luxury of tuning out most of what her parents tell her.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig captures with breathtaking precision that liminal moment when teenagers manage to mash-up grandiosity that stretches to infinity and soul-crushing insecurity. “Math isn’t something you’re terribly strong in,” a nun (Lois Smith) tells her diplomatically. “That we know of. Yet,” Lady Bird replies. “I just want you to be the best version of yourself,” her mother tells her. “What if this is the best version of myself?” she asks. Metcalf’s expression on hearing this question contains multitudes of sympathy and maybe a touch of envy at the endless possibilities spreading out in front of her daughter.

This is one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Metcalf and Tracy Letts, as Lady Bird’s parents, Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson as her teachers, “Manchester by the Sea” Lucas Hedges and “Call Me By Your Name” Timothée Chalamet as boys she likes, and Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush as her friends are all superb. Gerwig never lets even the smallest roles be anything but specific and complex. The episodic storyline brims with telling, meticulously observed moments. Lady Bird and her mother stop bickering for a moment in the thrift store when they suddenly unite in the ecstasy of finding the perfect prom dress (inspired, Gerwig told me, by “Pretty in Pink”). Her father finds himself competing for a job with his own son, pride and support edging just slightly ahead of desperation. Lady Bird makes some bad mistakes in judgment but there are no bad guys here, just people trying to figure out who they are and connect without hurting or being hurt, still young enough to assume that it’s only a matter of time.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, sexual references and situations, teen drinking, and mild peril.

Family discussion: What name would you pick for yourself? Is Lady Bird more like her mother or father?

If you like this, try: “Frances Ha” and “Edge of Seventeen”

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies -- format School Stories about Teens

Wonder

Posted on November 16, 2017 at 5:46 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some bullying and peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Wonder is more than a book — it is a movement. R.J. Palacio’s book, Wonder, and its follow-ups, including Auggie & Me, have become hugely popular with middle schoolers and their teachers. That is because it is not a story about disability, even though its hero is a 10-year-old with craniofacial deformity who is starting school for the first time after 27 surgeries. It is a story about friendship, family, and above all, kindness. As the 5th grade teacher writes on the blackboard, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

Auggie (“Room’s” Jacob Tremblay) lives with his loving parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), his devoted older sister Via (for Olivia) (Izabela Vidovic), and their dog in a comfortable New York brownstone. With medical treatment to help him see and hear, Auggie’s face is misshapen and scarred. School principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) tries to put Auggie at ease by joking about his name (everyone has something people make fun of) and recruiting three students to give him a tour of the building before school starts. Scholarship student and all-around boy next door Jack (Noah Jupe), self-centered but not mean Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), and nice-to-grownups-but-a-bully-to-anyone-who-makes-him-uncomfortable Julian (Bryce Gheisar) show him around, alternating between rude questions and pretending he’s not there.

And then school begins. Palacio has taken the most fraught period of life, when friendships are most vital and the tiniest panic about not fitting in can be devastating and heightens it even more by creating an extreme case. Auggie has already triumphed over his disability, which he barely notices. It is triumphing over middle school that is the near-impossible challenge. Palacio and this film understand that it is this time above all, with so many volcanic physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, it seems so desperately important to fit in, to seem, in the narrowest terms, “normal.” And, unfortunately, because they are still so young, it can seem that the best way to do that is to call attention to the ways that other kids are less normal than they are.

So, anyone who’s ever been in middle school will understand why Auggie comes home after the first day and cuts off his padewan braid, not with a light saber because he’s been made a Jedi knight but with his sister’s scissors because kids made fun of him at school. And that doesn’t even have anything to do with his face.

That comes later. The kids spread a rumor, even though none of them really believe it, that touching Auggie will give you “the plague.” And then Auggie does two things that made Julian lash out even more. He is smart in school. And he becomes friends with Jack and then some of the other kids, too, including Summer, a popular girl who joins Auggie’s table in the cafeteria not because she feels sorry for him but because she correctly senses that he is nicer than the catty girls she had been sitting with.

There are setbacks, as when Auggie’s favorite holiday, Halloween, where he gets to look like everyone else, means that he has a chance to overhear what people say when they think he’s not around.

What elevates this film, though, is its recognition that kindness begins with empathy. By leaving Auggie’s point of view to let us know what is going on with some of the other characters, we understand more about why they behave the way they do. Via tells us what even her parents do not know, that it is difficult to be the sibling of a child with a problem, and that the most difficult part is feeling that there’s no space left for any problems from anyone else. When she is abandoned by her closest friend, we think we understand, until we get to see things from the friend’s perspective as well.

Director Stephen Chbosky (writer/director of another story about young friends, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and screenwriter for another movie about a character feared for his looks, “Beauty and the Beast”) has made a wise, warm-hearted film that is a balm for troubled times. It also just happens to have one of the most beautiful performances of the year by Julia Roberts, who wanted to be in the film after she read the book to her children. Look at her face as she sees that Auggie is bringing a friend home for the first time. It contains so much love, relief, surprise, and effort to contain all of that and more it serves as a one-minute master class in screen acting.

“I’m an ordinary kid,” Auggie tells us. “I just don’t look ordinary.” This is a movie that might look ordinary but is a quiet gem of insight and inspiration.

Translation: Story deals with challenges faced by a boy with craniofacial deformity attending school for the first time, bullying, some scuffles, mild schoolyard language

Family discussion: What can you do to choose kindness? How do you know when it is time to be right and when it is time to be kind? Why did Jack make fun of Auggie? Why did Summer sit with Auggie?

If you like this, try: Auggie & Me, the book by Wonder author R.J. Palacio that expands the story

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