Starry Eyed Waves That Find No Response in Dear Evan Hansen (2021)
Reckoning with Upended Expectations and Complicated Attachments
I never quite know where to begin. Here that feeling of disarray is compounded by something all the more peculiar. It is not guided so much by the glory of a performance but by what it means when someone seems to be looking at the floor and not quite communicating all that much.
This post is about a scene from Dear Evan Hansen, a film I’ve not seen. If the moment of performance is usually what captures, or rather, enraptures me in the writing throughout these posts, what I’ve stumbled on here is still somehow all the more disorienting. My approach to whatever that thing called art is, is to meet it on the grounds presented. This is to say that if I find myself to be in front of a song or painting or movie that I cannot quite engage with, rather than turning away I try to turn towards. If I am flummoxed I remain curious, eager not to discount but reckon with what leaves me in an odd space—one that breaks the neat folds of expectations. It is there, in further effort, I hope the shape of a movie might become a bit sharper or perhaps something I missed illuminates itself. I’d like to think this is at the crux of my caring about what I care about: the possibility of surprise.
I’m not quite sure where this curiosity comes from, but I find, albeit in very different registers, a clearer articulation of this drive in the recent work of two scholars. For Michael Gillespie, there is a critically important question to ask when looking at a “Black film.” So that we avoid the trap of preformulated notions we would do well to never stop asking “does any good really come from refusing to let art exceed your expectations?”I am also moved, or motivated, I think, by what Eugenie Brinkema has recently called for in her push towards radical formalism, encouraging that we reckon with “understandings that do not precede investigation…close, subtle, winding, indirect reading, reading that can surprise.” In equally poetic framing she insists on the necessity of “confront[ing something] always again as though it had never been said first.” But what has been said? What gesture to announce our arrival has been made?
These questions came to mind, a couple weeks back, when I saw this tweet about Dear Evan Hansen.
There I was, taken by what is an awkwardly directed and dreadfully orchestrated moment. I haven’t seen the film. I’ve not listened to the entirety of the soundtrack, and, I admit this all taking a great gulp of air before hesitating, I am almost completely unfamiliar with the story. Nevertheless, I felt tenderly accosted by the tweet’s video and caption. It brought a craggy smile at first, as it riffed on a widely circulating celebration of a long take from Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of West Side Story. Despite the shared space of a school gymnasium the tweet’s humor is in the fundamentally different approaches to communicating tone through the braiding together of song, cinematography, space, and all that goes into making musicals shimmer. Where West Side Story found the mundane in the magnificent, Dear Evan Hansen turned a common place into confused chaos. I was taken, not only by the caption, which as the author clarified was not meant to be a dismissal, but by something else that raided my interiority.
There is so much here that is oh-so-very bizarre. The peculiarity of this clip does not easily welcome the categories frequently brought up to authenticate affection that might otherwise refuse dominant criteria. Camp, this is not. It is also certainly not queer in any sense that matters beyond the all too loosening of the term by those invested in occupying a marginal space while reaping the benefits of the center. I can’t venture to say much evaluatively about the scene beyond reckoning with it being well, something that disrupted my expectations in a way that I didn’t quite know.
What I knew about the film version of Dear Evan Hansen was this: the movie was an adaptation of a smash musical success that was widely thought to allegorize struggles about identity and sexuality. I remember the initial wretched trailer. I remember the perplexed response by many seeing Ben Platt, who originated the role when he was 21 years old, taking to the screen years later as a high schooler despite looking significantly older . I understood the criticism and confusion. It felt accurate as I watched the trailer, with little interest beyond my immediate impulse to follow what was significant in the contemporary intersection between film and theatre.
But then I saw the clip of “Waving Through a Window” on Twitter. I, like so many, was bewildered. My astonishment was not lined by wonder. It was not animated by a desire to champion or an urge to denigrate. Rather what was clear to me was that this was, unquestionably, one of the most frustratingly directed moments I had ever seen. The mix between the lead, Evan, and the world around him, like the choreography, and the editing felt aimless. Though Platt occupies the middle of the frame, guiding the camera’s movement, his own actions were both too micro to matter and yet too disorganized to amplify the energy of what is, as I’ve learned, one of the biggest songs from the show.
Watch the Scene Here:
I eventually went on to view a longer snippet of the scene where Platt does the things that actors are so frequently championed for: he pulls on his collar, he lightly shrugs, he demonstrates angst physically. But these small movements, which seem as ill-fitted for the a stage performance as they do in this movie, create a tension between the explicitly clear loudness of song proclaiming isolation and the minor movements that are meant to suggest fundamental unease or dislocation. There can be whole worlds of meaning in the little but what we are left with that is visually meaningful is so so very little. Students in the school walk around—they talk—they exist. There is no big moment, as you might expect, where Evan is thrown or pushed aside and ostracized. I remained lost.
Before I ventured to find the longer clip, I kept replaying the video from the tweet. I sent it to a couple of friends, and then punched some the lyrics into a search window to listen to the song. Again, I was surprised. I don’t often listen to musical soundtracks but I spent hours watching covers on YouTube and comparing the different versions of “Waving Through a Window” as it was performed not only by Ben Platt but other actors who inhabited the role. Only then did I go and watch the longer clip of “Waving Through a Window” from the film. Throughout the process, in the repetitions of the tune I wondered: why was this thing which felt entirely like a failure generating so much interest and time on my part? How was it that this fumbling meant something to me beyond any ironic enjoyment or the alternative belief that, yes, this was beautiful?
Where do we begin? Most immediately there is the literalization of the song’s lyrics in the film. Though not included in the linked clip, the track begins “I've learned to slam on the brake/ before I even turn the key” and here we are in a car. Evan is not driving but the automobile provides a clear connection. He is a passenger, staring out the window, emphasizing that, as Platt sings, “we start with stars in our eyes.” Whatever this face suggests it reflects anything but glittering dreams—we have instead something more like a vacant look of emptiness. The connection between song and explicit action becomes tighter when Evan sings “step out, step out of the sun” as he exits the car and closes the door in a moment of accentuation.
Quickly, Evan makes his way through a school hallway bristling with cliques, groups and all the social networking that happens in the fucked-up space of being fucked off so common to life in that treacherous age. He pulls on his collar nervously, as if to shrink in the presence of other students who are, we gather, his age. For a song which features various crests of emotion it is an exceptionally mundane rendition of a common experience of high school life for many: the walk through the hallway.
Little is going on and why should there be more? If the song is meant to communicate the isolation of everyday hallway life it seems, at this point, all too literal. Oddly, though we get the car door slamming to accentuate “step out step out,” we get nothing else that could easily be visualized. In a song that weaves through metaphors (the car’s brake and key; the sun’s brightness as figuratively burning like one being spurned by others) the visually and cinematically apt refrain “on the outside always looking in…tap tap tapping on the glass,” remains exactly that, an open metaphor to consider. It is language that shines here, not cinematic grammar.
It is startling, still, that the metaphorical outside, the feeling of isolation while moving through a throng of people, isn’t clearly drawn. Evan appears on the inside, or rather, he is in a school building and there are no specific moments of being thrust out of any social circle. For example, he doesn’t try to talk to someone who shrugs him off. He just seems to be walking. Of course, that modifier just is not quite right. After all, how does a film show someone just walking. What we are shown is a kind of ping-ponging back and forth between Evan’s point of view and a tracking shot of Platt’s upper body. In less than a second, we get three cuts between our protagonist and the space around him. There doesn’t appear to be any rhythm to cuts and its unclear what the logic of the scene is meant to suggest. As he walks, we see Evan raise and lower his arms, carrying the metaphorical weight of what it means to struggle in high school. Then he seems to shrug and ask “is anybody waving [back at me?]”
Before we get to the gymnasium there is a baffling moment. There appears to be a jump cut, suggesting that Evan is in a different space. In fact, we are still in the hallway. But it is disorienting. Evan is no longer walking. He is not waving or tapping on anything. Instead, he is standing in front of red lockers and the handmade letters composing a sign of the school’s mascot: the Bobcats. We are at the bridge of “Waving Through a Window” and Evan asks “When you're falling in a forest and there's nobody around / do you ever really crash, or even make a sound?” The camera dollies back with the repetition of the question, accompanied by a deluge of cuts as the camera circles around Evan.
If we expect there to be a completed circle, if we hope for longer shot that fulfills the promise of moving 360 degrees around the singer we are to be disappointed. The movement makes sense as a way to cinematically isolate Hansen only if we recognize just what it is that insulates and sequesters some even as it enables the love between others. As that recognition begins to dawn there is a cut, and then another, and another. What motivates the editing is unclear. Then comes the question “Did I ever make a sound?” The philosophical question remains unanswered. And then, finally, we get the jump cut. This is the visual response to the question, which finds its aural complement in the throttling of the gymnasium doors opening.
I watch and find myself in the terrain of the familiar—this is the clip from the initial tweet. Still, it unsettles. Whether occupying the center of the frame or through POV shots, we’ve been fastened to Evan in our tour of the school. This remains generally true in the gymnasium. There is one odd cut away from Evan. It is not a POV shot but it is short and we catch a glimpse of the school’s cheerleaders. What it means I still don’t know. It is singular in that it is the only shot that takes us away from Evan and yet why we leave the character so briefly remains a mystery. He is not only separated from the socially efflorescent lives of cheerleaders but, if I understand this right, secluded from all those around him. Everyone can see him, of course, but no one can see him.
This is remarkably bizarre. The camera seems to never stop moving. The cuts are unmotivated, the editing is confounding but the camera is focused, as much as it can be, on Evan. He is the center of our attention. More than the performance of teenage angst, the choreography is what fails. Little is clarified. The space between the song and the film grows ever widening. The literalization that we began with in which he stepped out of a car and closed the door to the line “step out” is gone. What we have instead is a displacement or abnegation of expectations. This is the time, at the climax of the tune, to visually represent our lead’s internal turmoil and the unachieved tethering to surrounding social life. There is movement, there is energy, but it is misdirected as we’re left unaware where it originates, how it is channeled, and where it emerges. It is as though everything around Hansen operates normally, as it should, but the film is unable to communicate what that feeling is like beyond the camera that insists on mobility at the cost a meaningful maneuvering.
There are charitable reads available—the most immediate being that that the fundamental disjuncture or incoherence is the point. Evan feels lost, outside, and so too should the viewer feel adrift in piecing together what is going on. Yet, this seems all too uncomplicatedly literal. The power of a scene such as this is not in its plainness but in film’s ability to push an audience to embark on the mission of generating a feeling of isolation rather than showing it as its happening.
To see a person walking in a crowd is not to understand the feeling of loneliness that comes in the thrall of vibrant communal life you’ve never been able to enter. To show an image of a person and a crowd is not to connect the two so much as to suggest that they both exist. We need, or the power of movies, is in something more: it is in the tension facilitated by the deft cut and the specificity of a particular ordering of shots. This is the power of montage, a power which feeds on viewer’s desires to draw relations that might otherwise silently only exist internally. To watch a film is to have our expectations upended and be shown something otherwise, something that exists beyond our immediate expectations and the narratives that are generated by them. This is all the more true in a musical, given the intentional abandonment of whatever the convention is that we call naturalism.
So, I am there again, hanging on the titular line that seems like a metaphor for the very experience of viewing such an inscrutable scene. I am there, watching snippets on YouTube and Twitter, “waiting around for an answer to appear, waving through a window.” The discussion or “discourse” flails, as if to offer an answer to the question the song asks, “can anybody see? Is anybody waving?” What are snide tweets if not an attempt to wave and beckon those on social media to pay attention? The original tweet and its addendum reflect less a sneering claim of preposterousness than the very yearning the clip struggles to capture. That it plays on another Tweet, one proclaiming the sublimity of Spielberg marks it as all the more resonant.
I can’t account for my compulsive listening habits. To delve into that world and emerge would require some metaphysical investment in something like psychoanalysis or a plunge into the thorny and impossible world of taste. Please believe me when I say I followed that path, asking those more well versed in the construction of musical tunes to help clarify what it was that captivated me. Had I been swallowed by the culture industry? Was I naïve? What did I, with little familiarity of the source material, gravitate towards? No answer could snugly fit any of the questions.
Perhaps there is something in this weird clip, something in its failure to fulfill the desires, that is meaningful. It is as though the scene is purposefully incomplete and that its refusal to close the song’s circuit, architected by ecstatic highs and low doldrums, becomes an invitation. That invitation is less to celebrate the ruin of an expensive production by a studio whose success is predicated on exploitation (though that remains there to hold). The scene offers something that is all the more mysterious, fickle and frustrating. It is the occasional impossibility of recognition, something explicit in the refusal to show any exchange between Evan and another student. The looks and movement in the hallway and gymnasium reflect the notches that disrupt any simple gliding through conversation. The scene is formally ballasted by an absurdity that asks us to think and think again. Watching a movie is after all an experience of waving through a window, eager to touch and talk with people that will never answer us back, at least not quite in the way we imagine.
I’ve not sought to recover this moment in an act of celebration. I’ve only tried to engage with that impossible relation of identification that is forever filled with friction. In other words, I have endeavored to plunge into that thing that confounds me only to end up recognizing that I cannot make it to the other side. I am here, waving through a window of experience, knowing those gestures cannot be reciprocated. There is no opening to exit because there was only a threshold to enter. This is the offering of a musical that literalizes when things are so metaphorical. There I reside in a place of failure and the space not of what is, but the speculative land of what might visually dwell underneath the hushed murmurs of what wasn’t.
Michael Gillespie, Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016), 11
Eugenie Brinkema, Life Destroying Diagrams (Duke University Press, 2022), 27
Eugenie Brinkema, Life Destroying Diagrams (Duke University Press, 2022), 26