Dear Evan Hansen boasts excellent songs and performances, but they struggle against the film’s difficulty in handling the sour taste of its story.
Dear Evan Hansen was directed by Stephen Chbosky, who also directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder. Based on the stage show of the same name, it stars Ben Platt (reprising his role from the show) as Evan Hansen, a high schooler who deals with severe anxiety and mental health issues. He writes letters to himself as a therapy exercise, but his latest letter is stolen by a classmate named Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan). Days later, Connor commits suicide and is found with Evan’s note, leading his parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) to believe that the note was written by Connor for Evan. Rather than telling the parents the truth, Evan goes along with this and says that he was Connor’s best friend, setting off a chain of events that leads to increasingly-complicated new relationships, strained older relationships, and a growing movement at Evan’s school in response to Connor’s death.
The stage show Dear Evan Hansen seems to be beloved by many. I myself know nothing about the original show, so I can’t comment on its quality. But as usual with any cinematic adaptation, any criticisms I have for this film are meant just for the film itself. Maybe the show has none of the issues I bring up, or maybe it has the exact same issues. Either way, I’m not taking anything away from fans of the show or even this film, especially with the heavy subject matter it deals with. If it moves and inspires you, then that’s all that should matter to you.
Seeing as Dear Evan Hansen is a musical, it’s a huge benefit that the music itself is the best part of the film. The melodies are infectious, the lyrics are profoundly written and further our understanding of these characters, and the vocal performances are deeply moving, especially when infused with little imperfections when characters get particularly worked up. With that said, don’t go in thinking you’ll get some spectacular set pieces, as nothing here is that flashy or elaborate. I wasn’t expecting it to be, but I still think more could have been done visually to take greater advantage of the transition from stage to cinema. Still, there should certainly enough here to satisfy you in that regard.
In the non-musical portions, though Chbosky’s film doesn’t always grasp the severity of the writing, his directing is effective in capturing the emotions of each scene. He gets the best possible performances out of his actors across the board, including Ben Platt … Although, yes, let’s address the elephant in the room: Platt looks too old to be playing a high school student. Everyone who’s seen this film has said this, and they’re correct. However, it’s not nearly as egregiously distracting as people are making it out to be. It doesn’t kill the movie or even make it substantially worse, largely due to the quality of the performance itself. I also want to specifically praise Kaitlyn Dever as Connor’s sister, Zoe. She has the most complex grieving process out of the family, and Dever brings that to life with startling authenticity.
Regardless of any technical or acting achievements, I think most people who read the premise of Dear Evan Hansen will immediately raise an eyebrow due to the highly questionable actions of its lead character. Evan is lying to a family about having been friends with their dead son, which is already shady at best. But additionally, he tells elaborate stories about the things he and Connor did, he creates fake emails between himself and Connor, and he tells Zoe what Connor supposedly thought of her but is actually saying what he himself thinks of her (as he is harboring romantic feelings for her). And all of this is at least partially caused by Evan’s desire for acceptance by another family when he feels he doesn’t have it from his own mother (Julianne Moore), making everything he does very selfishly motivated on his part.
All of that is incredibly unethical, disgusting, and speaks to many serious issues within these people that need to be properly addressed. Evan Hansen’s actions aren’t just wrong, but potentially psychologically scarring. Connor’s family is shown to have had a strained relationship with Connor at best. But because of Evan’s lies, they’re unable to properly come to grips with his death, nor work through the underlying problems born from their history with him in a healthy, honest, constructive way. This creates the illusion of healing, not true healing. Plus, these lies erase the true legacy and memory of a kid who committed suicide, creating a false one that risks ensuring no one ever knows who he truly was. The film itself never even goes into detail as to why he killed himself, and it touches on his mental illness in the vaguest manner possible. I felt deeply unsettled watching this all play out. Every single sentimental moment had a constant blanket of foulness over it that couldn’t be escaped no matter what the film did.
But here’s where my thoughts get complicated: I realize that this is partially the point. That is, I believe that Dear Evan Hansen understands what makes this situation so bad … albeit only somewhat. For instance, I was really worried that the ending would see Evan be completely forgiven by everyone. But there’s not a clean resolution between him and the people he hurt, and there’s no pretending that massive damage hasn’t been done. I think the film also realizes that Evan’s actions are the product of his mental health not being properly treated, primarily by his mother. She means well and clearly loves him, but she doesn’t understand how badly he’s suffering, and she isn’t always there when he needs her. This causes his health to get even worse and drives him to find fulfillment in one of the ugliest ways imaginable. Even my complaint of Connor’s erasure is addressed to some degree, with part of the resolution being a quest to bring true memories of him to light. It doesn’t make up for everything, but it certainly helps.
So clearly, this musical is aware that Evan is in the wrong. However, I still don’t think it truly grasps how wrong Evan was. He faces no real consequences for his actions in the end, and is instead portrayed as having grown and learned from everything. The ending seems to think that he can simply move on from what happened, but what he did is so terrible that I don’t think that’s nearly enough for a conclusion. We’re supposed to ultimately end up back on his side, but I couldn’t bring myself to that point, leaving a very bitter taste in my mouth. Furthermore, because Connor’s life and mental health are gravely underexplored, having the attention instead go to Evan doesn’t feel right in the first place. I can’t help but wonder if this would have been a better story if it had been just about Connor’s family coping with his suicide. I think that would have made this a more mature film that would have played more to Chbosky’s strengths.
Maybe the fact that this is a musical in the first place is part of the problem, despite how good the songs are. I don’t mean to say that it being a musical inherently makes the film worse, but when a story deals with character choices this morally reprehensible and subject matters this touchy, it becomes far easier to undercut the seriousness of the themes. When you see the forgery of a suicide victim’s emails portrayed via an upbeat, comedic song-and-dance number, or a song starting up out of nowhere in the middle of a very serious, very intense scene (like Evan confessing his lies), it’s really hard to swallow for all the wrong reasons. Getting this to work is a tightrope walk, probably made even harder by turning it into a film.
Dear Evan Hansen deals with very complicated scenarios in a way that I have very complicated feelings towards. I see what it’s trying to do, and it succeeds in some ways, but it feels dirty in others. Its portrayal of grief, guilt, and neglect are very well done, but the framing of the story casts them in a slightly problematic light. This adaptation is nowhere near as bad as a lot of the reception might have you believe, and it clearly has good intentions. But if the stage show is truly as great as many say, a lot of that greatness was sadly lost here.
Dear Evan Hansen was released in US theaters on September 24, 2021.
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