You’ll find it hard to take care of, even though the movie insists you probably should.
By Rob Hunter Published on September 23, 2021
The difference between intent and execution is usually not too clear, but sometimes the goal an artist strives for is a long way from what he meets. Seldom has this gap been as great as that between the topics mentioned Dear Evan Hansen and the movie itself. It’s a movie with the best of intentions, but it’s designed to leave some viewers with the meanest thoughts about the title character.
Evan (a twenty-seven year old) Ben Platt) is a teenager with a social anxiety disorder. We know this because he says so much, but also because his hands fidget, he looks at the ground a lot and he sings (songs that others hear as normal speaking). A well-meaning therapist, likely without a license, suggests writing and printing positive, optimistic letters to yourself to start your day on the right foot. Evan does just that one day at school, but his written thoughts take a darker turn. Worse still, the phrase is used by the school loner, Connor (Colton Ryan) who goes home and kills himself. Connor’s grieving parents (Amy Adams, Danny Kiefer) assume that their son wrote the note and that the two teenagers were friends, and Evan – awkward, lonely, fearful, selfish, devious Evan – encourages that belief.
Listen, I’m all for stories that tell the sad truth about victims come to power and become villains, but where 2017 Taiwanese gem Mon Mon Mon Monsters and Nate’s story arc in Ted Lasso’s second season get it right , Dear Evan Hansen, gets it pathetically wrong. Evan is kind of an outsider, but letting him not only ride but direct this runaway train of emotional manipulation, recklessness and cruelty for most of an offensively long run is a decision that affects the very real issues at stake are seriously undermined and instead lead to a film’s train wreck.
writer Steven Levenson adapts its own stage musical – one I’ve never seen before, which means this is strictly a review of the film in its current form – alongside the director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 2012) and its various beats are an incredibly difficult balancing act even under the best of circumstances. The talent shown here is a huge boost to precisely that circumstance as the cast also includes sizes like Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, and Stenberg’s powerbut none of them can redress Dear Evan Hansen’s injustice.
As Evans builds initial responses to family sympathy, he is quick to accept the support and kind words he receives – his “friendship” becomes the focus of a movement that encourages people to reach out to those around you so that nobody can feels so alone – and shapes it according to his wishes and ideas. His mother (Moore) works too much, so he bathes in the attention of Connor’s parents. He’s had a long crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Dever), so he takes this opportunity to bag her as a friend. (This beat is its own source of contention, as Zoe’s sudden attraction to Evan Malignant’s insane story makes it seem rather sluggish by comparison.) It betrays the friendship of the kindest soul in the movie, but don’t worry, the movie makes her the Favor as a final hurray towards inconsistency of character.
More plot beats follow, including an ending reveal meant to instill compassion for Evan, but it’s the epitome of “too little too late”. By the end of the credits, there isn’t a single character here who feels authentic, honest, or redeemed. Even Evan’s mother, the most grounded figure here who gave Moore a believable life, succumbs to the emptiness of Dear Evan Hansen’s ultimate message. After learning that her son is a real ass and has done excruciating emotional damage, she essentially tells him, “Um, who’s going to remember that in a year?” We should all be lucky enough to forget, but that seems unlikely.
It’s also all so unfortunate because these are talented people who should have told a touching and important story. Platt is a gifted singer, but he feels so out of place here and can’t pass as a teenager (although the role was created on stage six years ago). Sagging shoulders feel like an ineffective attempt to appear smaller, and the eventual (and inexplicable) obliteration of his fearful mannerisms is a decision that seems ill-conceived down the line. Yes, you too can overcome your debilitating psychiatric disorder by simply making others feel like shit!
Did I mention it’s a musical too? While the other 2021 film musicals include dance numbers and ensemble songs, Dear Evan Hansen sees his characters break into songs on occasion to convey both dialogue and exposure. As one sings, others throw in like it’s just a conversation, and when Evans’ public and totally fictional ode to Connor’s friendship goes viral, it’s not his song that people see, share, and respond to, but rather he speaks. The device works well for elevating emotionally charged dialogue by shaping it into musical deliveries, but the songs never really break with lyrics about being alone, refusing to care, or the fact that Evan’s mother wasn’t a U-Haul- Truck is. (Maybe I misunderstood Moore’s song to her son that she would stay with him for the long term.)
The one thing Dear Evan Hansen is doing right is that social media is a real scourge of modern society. It’s never the focus here, and in fact the unwashed masses who use it to blindly lift or hit others are never confronted, but it’s a truth nonetheless. The idea that bullies who find popularity often turn into bullies themselves is also present and ignored, leaving behind only the simpler topic – be nice to others because you never really know what they are up to on their own Life to do (and if you get the chance) motherfuckers will happily dance on your grave).
Related topics: Dear Evan Hansen
Rob Hunter wrote for Film School Rejects before you were born, which is strange since he’s so damn young. He is our chief film critic and associate editor and lists ‘Broadcast News’ as his all-time favorite. Feel free to say hello whenever you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.