Through a Window Darkly
On the surface, the films Dear Evan Hansen and Bergman Island couldn’t be more different—one is a musical, the other a quiet meditation on the reconciliation of love and the creative process. But the two share some blood in that they depict characters who are struggling with their mental states, and they both made appearances in the fall film festival circuit. Hansen had its world premiere this year at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9 as the Opening Night Gala Presentation, and Bergman Island premiered at the Cannes Film Festival but also screened at the Telluride Film Festival, and most recently, the New York Film Festival. Here, I examine the beating heart behind each one.
By now you have probably heard the incessant jeers coming from the first critics to see Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen concerning its relatively young lead Ben Platt’s age (28) and that of the title character he portrays (17). But having seen the film, Platt’s appearance did not bother me. He delivers an emotional performance that is every bit as engaging and genuine as that of the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name the film was based on and for which Platt won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.
As the high school senior Evan Hansen, who is plagued with social anxiety disorder, Platt goes out of his way to let everyone around him suck the air out of the room—even after an injury leaves him with a bum wing. He has stooped posture, stumbles on nearly every word, becomes easily flustered, and relies on a steady regimen of Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Ativan to get him through each day. He is a ghost walking amidst giant hallways, drowning in the din of day-to-day high school life, who feels he is perpetually "waving through a window", as one of the story's songs goes. Evan even sits alone in the cafeteria, barely glancing around as he steadies himself through a simple meal that is probably the worst part of his day.
But unbeknownst to Evan, there is another ghost haunting the halls, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a teen with a bad boy exterior who like Evan secretly desperately wants to feel a part of the world that seems to go on around him and without him. It isn’t a spoiler to say that Connor takes his own life, setting in motion the plot that unfolds, and I share that because as low as Evan feels, he couldn’t know the darkness going on inside the mind of Connor, or could he?
Connor’s parents (played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino) find a note in his pocket that is misinterpreted as a suicide note but in reality was written by Evan, a practice note to himself as part of his therapy. Hence, the title of the musical and film, and once Connor's parents entrust Evan with that information, his journey of self-discovery and acceptance begins.
The first part of his journey involves meeting Alana Beck (Amandla Stenberg), a plucky joiner who we later find out is regulated by her own set of medications. Stenberg wrote a new song for the film’s soundtrack, “The Anonymous Ones” that her character sings and describes her to a T:
“The anonymous ones
Never let you see the ache they carry
All of those anonymous ones
Who never name that quiet pain they bury
So they keep on keeping secrets that they think they have to hide
But what if everybody’s secret is they have that secret side?”
Above: Advertisement for Dear Evan Hansen at AMC Lincoln Square, New York, NY
This past weekend, in a Q&A at the New York Film Festival, the star of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, Vicky Krieps described the feeling she had working on set using the German word “sehnsucht”, a cross between longing and missing. “So, it’s like you long for something you’ve known before maybe or something you might know one day, but you don’t know. It’s quite melancholic but more positive,” she said. The film was shot on Fårö, an island in the Baltic Sea and off the mainland of Sweden's southeastern coast, where Ingmar Bergman made his home and directed several of his films.
Above: Anders Danielsen Lie (second from left), Vicky Krieps, and Mia Hansen-Løve at Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY, September 25, 2021 Photo: Author
Bergman Island follows a couple (played by Krieps and Tim Roth) who retreat to Fårö to work on their screenplays when the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur. In the film, Kriep’s Chris recounts her story for Roth’s Tony where a young woman named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) struggles with her intense romantic feelings for a man she once had a sexual relationship with and with whom she is thrown back in the mix with over a weekend wedding celebration (Anders Danielsen Lie as Joseph). Amy is thrilled when Joseph responds to her advances, but after their first encounter, she cannot contain herself and begins pursuing him. When he doesn’t call when he says he will, she shows up, when he doesn’t follow through with seeing her, she calls—you get the picture. Amy is wholly consumed by the anxiety she experiences vis-à-vis her feelings for Joseph. Meanwhile, outside the film within the film, Chris quietly radiates her own feelings of anxiety as she lives in the shadow of Tony, who enjoys some celebrity, evidenced by fans who attend his events on the island, and who she struggles to keep the attention of when describing her own work.
Although Chris’ anxiety is less palpable, the intensity of Amy’s anxiety is like that of Evan Hansen’s, the difference being that Evan conceals his (as if behind a window) until he nearly blows a gasket and Amy does blow a gasket. In any case, to see mental health issues depicted so clearly through two completely different films and multiple characters—and in the case of Bergman Island even through varying degrees—was beautiful given the lack of attention in our society.
As much as I enjoyed both films, neither will feature in the Oscar conversation, and that’s OK. Because the point is that they were made, are accessible to anyone who wants to reach them, and in the words of Evan Hansen “be found”.