Stephen Chbosky, ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ director: Movie takes aim at cancel culture

Director Stephen Chbosky says his new film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” opening Friday, offers a critique of social media’s cancel culture.

“I don’t remember a time of less tolerance in my life,” Mr. Chbosky told The Washington Times. “Because young people are under so much pressure to be perfect and say the right things all the time, I think it’s important for us to say that it’s unsustainable and it’s not fair. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

The Pittsburgh native, 51, said growing up without the internet gave him the luxury of learning from his mistakes as he wrestled between his public face and private self to grow into his own identity.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like [today], and I feel a great deal of sympathy for kids whose mistakes often have a permanent record on video and audio. Hopefully, we’re all evolving through our whole lives,” he said.

Mr. Chbosky’s film version of the coming-of-age teen drama has Ben Platt reprising his Tony Award-winning stage role as the isolated Evan, an anxious teenager whose therapist tells him to write letters to himself as a self-help exercise.

The exercise spins out of control when Evan fabricates a friendship with a fellow student whose suicide becomes a cause celebre at his school, bringing Evan long-sought-after popularity. But, unable to live with the lie, Evan confronts the cancel culture when he posts a vulnerable online video confession about suicide.

“That was one of the themes that attracted me the most about the original Broadway show. We actually added that confession scene because, we felt with film, we had a chance to talk about the other side of it,” Mr. Chbosky said.

The director said he felt drawn to export the Broadway musical beyond traveling theater shows because its message of hope seemed to resonate with young people and their families.

“We celebrate people whose online celebrity gets overblown and then their fall from grace gets overblown,” Mr. Chbosky said. “I think the pressure put on this generation, and the pressure this generation puts on itself to be perfect all the time, is cruel.”

Mr. Chbosky is no stranger to filming theatrical musicals and dramas. He wrote the screenplays for the 2005 film version of “Rent” and Disney’s 2017 live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” In addition, he directed 2017’s acclaimed “Wonder.”

“Much more importantly to me, when you talk about these issues directly in a successful and entertaining way, it provides a sense of comfort to millions of young people,” he said.

Early reviews of “Dear Evan Hansen” have been mixed, with some critics who screened it at Toronto calling it a bomb.

“The truth is, the knives being out feels very strange to me and it feels personal, not like criticism at all,” Mr. Chbosky said. “Maybe this is something akin to what you call ‘cancel culture.’ To me, I didn’t make the movie for critics, I made it for young people and their families who are desperately trying to understand and help them.”

He said advance screenings have been met by thunderous applause and tearful confessions, with people coming up to him afterward to say they had lost their loved ones to cancer.

“I don’t think the audience is here for the movie, no matter how many tickets are sold. I think the movie is here for the audience,” he said. “Not everyone has access to Broadway or a traveling company.”

Filming started last September in quarantined Atlanta with a couple of false positive COVID-19 tests that the director said really scared the cast and crew.

“We would film and go home. We didn’t see anybody. It led to a lot of anxiety and depression among people making the film,” he said.

Mr. Chbosky first achieved fame for his 1999 novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which he adapted and directed for the screen.

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