There is a moment in Dear Evan Hansen, Stephen Chbosky’s adaption of the Tony Award-winning musical, when go-getter Alana (Amandla Stenberg) reveals to Evan Hansen (Ben Platt reprising his famed role) that she suffers from depression and anxiety just like him. The revelation comes as a shock to Evan as Alana’s life seems so together on the surface, after all she is the president of multiple clubs. It is here where the film’s themes regarding mental health and those suffering in silence feels most palpable.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film never matches this level of intrigue. For a film whose premise revolves around a lie that takes on a life of its own, there is very little truth to be found in its central character. By the time Evan eventually removes the metaphorical mask he has burdened himself with, the man behind it remains a mystery. One that the audience no longer cares to solve.
What we do learn about Evan is that he is suffering from social anxiety disorder and his mother Heidi (Julianne Moore), a nurse who is always working, is unaware of how serious it is. Wearing a cast on his arm after falling out of a tree, he is the poster boy for teenage awkwardness at his school. Barely able to make it through each day, and with no one to share his thoughts without outside of Jared (Nik Dodani), who makes it clear their only connection is that their parents are friends, he is constantly living in his head. Following the advice of his therapist, Evan writes himself letters that are meant to focus on the things that make life worth living for, which include his crush on Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever).
As fate would have it, Evan has a few unexpected encounters with Zoe’s moody brother Connor (Colton Ryan). Sarcastically signing Evan’s cast to make it appear as if they at least have one friend, Connor swipes one of his letters when he notices that Zoe is mentioned in it. Fearing that the unstable young man will post the letter online, Evan is stunned to learn a few days later that Connor committed suicide with the paper in his pocket.
Believing that the letter confirms that Evan was their son’s only friends, Zoe’s parents, Cynthia and Larry (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), reach out to him in hopes of gaining insight into their troubled son’s brief life. Instead of admitting that he wrote the letter, Evan concocts a friendship that never existed to appease the grieving family. Before he knows it, he is not only becoming more integrated in the Murphy household but also becomes the face of a school initiative to honour Connor’s memory.
Dear Evan Hansen makes it clear that individuals like Connor should never be forgotten. Through its examination of grief and mental health, the film wants to convey to teens and adults alike that they are not alone in their struggles. While this is an important message, the nature of the plot ensures that Connor is gone from one’s memory by the end. Outside of a mention of a previous suicide attempt and one found video, which serves more as an atonement of Evan’s sins rather than bringing Connor’s parents solace, the troubled young man remains an enigma for the bulk of the film.
The same can be said for Evan himself, who Chbosky works hard to redeem by the end of the film. While one can justify Evan’s initial fib as an example of him not want to further upset the grieving Cynthia and Larry with the truth, his actions get harder to ignore when he begins constructing fake emails to perpetuate the lie. It would have been perfectly fine if the story committed to Evan simply being an unlikable character, instead it uses his mental illness as an excuse for his increasingly self-absorbed behavior.
It does not help matters that Evan, much like most of the characters in the film, is so thinly written. While one can get away with this on the stage by letting the musical numbers do all the heavy lifting, the flaws become glaring when translated to film. Chbosky’s musical sequences are surprisingly flat from a visual perspective. Outside of a few moments, such as the “Sincerely Me”, “Requiem” and showstopper “You Will Be Found,” the film’s presentation of the songs strips them of the emotional punch that lyrics usually provide.
Failing to reach the emotional resonance that it strives for; one cannot help but question who Dear Evan Hansen is really aimed at? The film never delves deeply into the struggles teens encounter when trying to navigate moments of grief, suicidal thoughts, and isolation. As a result, many of the film’s dramatic beats ring hollow. Conversely, the film lacks the levity needed to make Evan’s stumbles from one lie to the next endearing.
This ultimately makes for a frustrating film. Dear Evan Hansen may carry the powerful message that “no one deserves to be forgotten,” but this film is utterly forgettable.
So it is really as bad as a lot of people say it is. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff on Letterboxd including a few who are either dealing with or had mental issues as they found this film to be insulting. Ben Platt is going to need to stay away from films for a while as he’s getting destroyed and rightfully so.
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