When I first saw the trailer for Dear Evan Hansen, I was hoping for a drama that would speak about mental illness and suicide in a meaningful way. I have many friends that struggle with depression, anxiety, and feeling alone. I know that a film that addresses those issues can make people feel less alone and more connected. The previews of the film made me hope that it could do all of those things but unfortunately, the film left me with mixed emotions. While some elements of the film resonate with honesty and authenticity, there are other times that it feels false to the experience of those who struggle with those experiences. Yet the performances and music are beautifully performed.
Dear Evan Hansen is a coming-of-age musical teen drama directed by Stephen Chbosky from a screenplay by Steven Levenson and based on the 2015 stage musical by the same name also by Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justine Paul. In the film, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) has depression and social anxiety, taking medication for his condition, and is directed by his therapist to write letters to himself to help him. It’s the beginning of the school year and his mother Heidi (Julianne Moore) wants him to ask his fellow students to sign his cast caused by Evan falling out of a tree at Ellison State Park that summer but Evan has no friends except for a family friend, Jared (Nik Dodani). At school, he writes a letter, asking whether anyone would notice if he was gone. A classmate, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), also friendless, writes on his cast. Connor happens upon Evan’s letter and takes it, furious at the mention of his sister Zoe. A few days later, Evan is pulled into the principal’s office to meet Connor’s mother, Cynthia (Amy Adams), and his stepfather Larry (Danny Pino). It is revealed that Connor committed suicide and his family believes that Evan was friends with him. Evan allows them to believe it, making up emails between them and eventually dating Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) and also making friends with another girl at school, Alana (Amandla Stenberg) who wants to create a memorial for Connor. Evan and his lies go virtual but will he continue the lies or will he finally tell the truth and seek redemption?
One of the most authentic elements in the film is the depiction of Alana, who shares Evan’s issues of depression and anxiety. Unlike the socially shy and inept Evan, she is popular, involved at school in many groups and it’s hard for Evan to initially believe she struggles. But she shows that she stays busy to become anonymous, to not connect with others in a meaningful way, and wears masks to maintain that distance. In women especially, this is a common coping mechanism for these issues. I have female friends who struggle with these issues and most of them behave similarly. The actress does a fantastic job of making the behavior realistic and authentic.
The grieving family portrayed by Amy Adams, Danny Pino, and Kaitlyn Dever also are believable in the destruction of their ability to cope. When they meet Evan, Zoe is filled with anger but his mother is desperately holding onto hope that Connor had at least one friend, connected with someone in a meaningful way. Evan wants to make them feel better but more he wants to connect to a family like theirs, that seems better than his own, with divorced parents, an absent father, and a mother constantly working. His lies, their belief in them, and their loss are all portrayed authentically. While it might seem far-fetched that Evan’s lies would work so well, they want to believe the best of Connor. Even Zoe wants to believe that her brother truly cared about her. This all rings true.
The music was truly compelling and the songs are well written. Some of the ideas evoked brought you to tears and the music at times is more powerful than the film, the dialogue, and the writing. The songs elaborate on the dialogue and story. And even though a musical seems an odd choice when speaking about suicide and depression, the songs highlight the emotions and the feelings of the characters.
There is no flaw in the performances, musically or in the acting. Ben Platt performs his role with a depth of emotion, even while the writing conflicts with that performance at times. His singing is sublime and his portrayal of a young man struggling with being honest and finding himself is well done. Amy Adams is poignant as Cynthia Murphy. Both her denial and her grief are so believable. Julianne Moore is fantastic as Evan’s mother. Along with Danny Pino and Kaitlyn Dever, the trio gives a fantastic performance as a grieving family trying to understand why Connor killed himself. Colton Ryan is believable as Connor, his anger palpable and real. Nik Dodani adds lightness with his wit. Amandla Stenberg is my favorite performance, the highlight of the film for me, in her performance as Alana. She is true and honest.
Where the film falters is in the writing and casting. The film relies on the trope of the struggling young man who gets popular due to crazy events and then redeems himself. It also falls flat in places when depicting depression and social anxiety. Evan throws up at the idea of talking to people but is able to get up on stage and speak in front of an entire crowd. He gains confidence way too quickly. There is also the platitude that if you just get through high school, it all gets better. While that can be true, adults still struggle with these same issues. The only way they feel better is to connect with others who have the same issues. While the film does show this, it does so in unrealistic and inflated ways that cause the writing to fall apart under an informed eye. It honestly feels written by someone who is an outsider to these types of issues.
As for casting, while Ben Platt does perform his part well, except that he does not look like a teenager. It throws the audience out of the story, breaking that suspension of disbelief. While in some films that would be fine, in a film dealing with such fraught topics, the casting needs to be realistic. It is certainly not the actor’s fault but the casting should have been examined better and the makeup used to try and make him look younger not only doesn’t work but has the effect of making him look older.
The film also runs very long with pacing that doesn’t work. The second act crests too soon and takes too long to get to Evan’s redemption. Ultimately, the ending should have happened sooner, giving us the last impression of Connor. That scene is beautiful and resonates, but by continuing the film loses a perfect ending.
While those who love musicals will still love this film and may very well enjoy the performances, those who would truly benefit from exploring suicide, depression, and anxiety in a meaningful way will be disappointed and angry. It may trigger bad memories as well so I do beg caution but I think the elements that fall flat will only serve to make those who struggle with these conditions feel more disconnected. If you want to watch it for yourself, the family grief, the songs, and the performances may be worth the time but be warned that the narrative may leave you with mixed emotions. It certainly did for me.
Rating: 3 out of 5 mixed emotions.
Official Website: Dear Evan Hansen | Movie Site & Trailer | September 24, 2021
Dear Evan Hansen
The breathtaking, generation-defining Broadway phenomenon becomes a soaring cinematic event as Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award winner Ben Platt reprises his role as an anxious, isolated high schooler aching for understanding and belonging amid the chaos and cruelty of the social-media age.
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Stephen Chbosky (THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, WONDER), the film is written for the screen by the show’s Tony winner Steven Levenson with music and lyrics by the show’s Oscar®, Grammy and Tony-winning songwriting team of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (LA LA LAND, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN).
Featuring Grammy winning songs, including the iconic anthem “You Will Be Found,” “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever” and “Words Fail,” DEAR EVAN HANSEN stars six-time Oscar® nominee Amy Adams, Oscar® winner Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever (BOOKSMART), Amandla Stenberg (THE HATE U GIVE), Colton Ryan (Apple TV+’s LITTLE VOICE), Nik Dodani (Netflix’s ATYPICAL), DeMarius Copes (Broadway’s MEAN GIRLS) and Danny Pino (NBC’s LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT). DEAR EVAN HANSEN is produced by Marc Platt (LA LA LAND, INTO THE WOODS, MARY POPPINS RETURNS) and Adam Siegel (2 GUNS, DRIVE), and is executive produced by Michael Bederman, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Universal Pictures will distribute the film in all territories. DEAR EVAN HANSEN opens exclusively in theaters on Friday, September 24, 2021.
ONE-LINER: 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 following the suicide of a fellow classmate.