Dear Evan Hansen, 2021.
Directed by Stephen Chbosky.
Starring Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino, DeMarius R. Copes, Isaac Powell, Liza Kate, Avery Bederman, and Gerald Caesar.
Film adaptation of the Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical about Evan Hansen, a high school senior with Social Anxiety disorder and his journey of self-discovery and acceptance.
Before saying anything, I must clarify that although I don’t despise it, I’m not going to defend Dear Evan Hansen. This musical adaptation (courtesy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder director Stephen Chbosky, adapting the musical stage play from a script by its creator Steven Levenson) makes nearly every wrong creative choice possible in its attempt to explore a darker side of the effects of poor mental health. I also don’t give a shit that the eponymous 17-year-old senior Evan Hansen is played by a 27-year-old Ben Platt that has played the role on stage (outdated practice or not, that casting is nothing new to me personally but in the grander scheme of things hard to even think about once the story gets to going from one uncomfortable plot development to the next). Sure, he does look silly sometimes (especially during a crying sequence that forces him to to do away with certain facial tricks and posturing hiding his age), but if I had to write one of those digestible lists ranking the top 10 reasons wrong with X, I’m not even sure the casting of Ben Platt would make the cut.
As a character, Evan Hansen makes some hasty choices under pressure for personal gain that will rub nearly anyone watching the wrong way. However, having some information regarding his current depression, social anxiety (some of the tics in the depiction here do feel a bit overboard), and aspects of his home life that leave him even more lonely, there is a degree of understanding as to why he does certain things, even if it can’t be stated enough that someone needs to slap him and explain to him that no matter how much better his life is improving, his behavior is borderline sociopathic.
Evan’s only ‘friend’ is Nik Dodani’s (also 27 in real life, yet receiving none of Ben Platt’s online dogpiling) Jared (who says they are only friends because of their parents), a jokester and nice enough friend out of sympathy, but also severely underutilized considering he’s aiding Evan with his immoral actions and, especially when the situation balloons in scale from personal to schoolwide to misguided nationwide inspiration, at any point, could have broken the façade and voiced the truth. Instead, he’s more interested in making light of deception (he forges emails for Evan, often tempted to place inappropriate jokes inside them). Towards the end, his only appearances are glimpses suggesting that, to him, none of this is his problem and that his hands are clean whether the truth comes out or not. It could be argued that he wants nothing to do with how far Evan is taking things, but he is healthy and complicit in the start of the fraud.
Protagonists also don’t need to be likable for a movie to work and say something noteworthy. Dear Evan Hansen is a distasteful view, although one seemingly with worthwhile lessons to get around to in the third act. Dealing with the fallout and the resolution is what will make or break this experience as either passably decent or bad (there are too many other mistakes along the way for the film to ever reach anything beyond mediocrity). Sadly, those last 20 or so minutes are a cheaply sanitized copout, not condemning Evan’s actions and realistically showing how his entire life would forever be a shitshow the Internet would never let down, and that would make simply going out in public difficult for multiple reasons (the most pathetically hilarious part of the ending is implying that getting accepted into any shining reputable college is a possibility). For a morally challenging movie to take the middle ground when it matters most is flat-out insulting.
It’s also baffling that Dear Evan Hansen is a musical at all (not to take anything away from the stageplay’s songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) since it’s hard to imagine anyone actually wanting to sing along with the character after the first 20 minutes. It’s less jarring for other characters, but even then, rarely does it ever feel functional here for characters to sing a song. Again, that’s also not a knock on the movie; there are a few emotionally resonant ones, such as “You Will Be Found.”
There is also dishonesty in writing Dear Evan Hansen off as incompetent or painfully horrible. Ben Platt turns in an acceptable performance albeit slightly exploitative, although its other characters such as Kaitlyn Dever’s Zoe Murphy (Evan’s high school crush that grossly turns into a potential romantic partner based on tragedy that he is capitalizing on with lies, conflicted thoughts or not) and Amanda Stenberg’s Alana, an honorable academic collaborating with Evan on an activist project for suicide prevention awareness, both dealing with complexities deserving of more time and focus. With those telling details out of the way, it’s safe to say it’s understandable why anyone would immediately be turned away from watching Dear Evan Hansen, although there is value in not shying away from showing the uglier signs of mental health and what it can bring people to do, especially when combined with other factors breaking someone down inside.
Abandoned by his father and unable to spend much time with his mom (played by Julianne Moore, she consistently works overtime as a nurse), Evan also finds the picture-perfect family he always wanted as awkward and queasy circumstances allows him to get closer to Zoe’s mom (a grieving Amy Adams, somewhat overacting but decent enough) and stepfather (Danny Pino). Of course, none of this excuses anything Evan Hansen does throughout the narrative, but underneath the questionable behavior are characters worth analyzing (especially Zoe, as Dear Evan Hansen would greatly benefit from having her immensely more likable and emphatic character receiving split time with Evan). It’s also still an unfortunate amount of narrative swinging and missing resulting in more “oofs” than a sensibly provocative look at ill mental health.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com