Dear Evan Hansen,
Your movie is going to be better than I thought it would be.
It’s going to make me laugh, it is going to make me cringe, and yes, it will even make me cry.
I will know that some of the situations are melodramatic.
I will know that some of the actors are out of place.
And I will know that the dialogue feels both manufactured in a lab AND by an alien.
Yet, I will enjoy it. I will enjoy it in spite of its flaws.
I can’t help myself.
Against my better judgment, I liked Dear Evan Hansen. Maybe it was because it was impossible to avoid the early reactions out of TIFF and they lowered my expectations or maybe I am just a sucker for musicals (I liked 2020’s The Prom also). Either way, I found myself won over by the song and dance of this story of a boy who can’t seem to tell the truth.
Based on the hit Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of a lonely high school student who suffers from anxiety, as well as bad decision making. Evan does not have anyone in his life to lean on. His mom is always at work trying to make ends meet, his dad is out of the picture, and his closest friend corrects him to specify, “family friend.” Ouch.
An Uncomfortable Misunderstanding
As a self-love exercise, Evan’s therapist recommends that he write letters to himself. After printing one off at school, a classmate, Connor, picks it up and takes it. Later that evening, Connor takes his own life. Because he was in possession of a letter that read, “Dear Evan Hansen,” his family naturally assumes that it was written by Connor and meant for Evan.
He tries and fails to explain the misunderstanding. Connor’s mom (Amy Adams) is desperate to cling on to anything that she has left of her son. Evan eventually goes with it and lies about his and Connor’s nonexistent friendship. It doesn’t stop there though.
Oh, how I wish it stopped there.
Evan’s lie spirals out of control and I spent the next two hours hiding in the makeshift turtle shell that I had fashioned out of my shirt.
I liked it though? It is hard to explain. In a weird way I found myself enthralled by the ways that Evan dug deeper and deeper into this hole that he had no business even breaking ground on.
A Complicated Character
It is important to understand Evan’s struggle with anxiety and depression. These two conditions are difficult to manage with a good support system. They are even harder to manage when you are a seventeen year old whose support system is limited, to say the least.
In the initial moment when Evan meets Connor’s parents and he tries to tell them the truth, you can see his struggle. He has a difficult enough time speaking up. To do so when a grieving mother is holding on to this narrative that brings her some kind of comfort is near impossible for him. When he gives in, he does not do it out of malice. Where things get complicated is where the lie ends up.
As Evan’s lie spreads, he starts gaining a weird form of notoriety in the school. For the first time in his life, he feels like he has support. His lie, which began as a way to help grieving parents, turns into something more selfish, as he begins using his dead classmate’s life and their made up friendship to cope with his hardships. It becomes worse as he uses it to grow closer to Connor’s sister, Zoe, who he has a crush on.
If this movie sounds like a never-ending series of missteps by Evan Hansen, it is because that is exactly what it is.
Hard to Watch but Can’t Look Away
For many who have seen the movie or Broadway show, I have seen the complaint that Evan is an unlikable character and what he is doing is reprehensible. While the latter part of that sentence is, without a doubt, true, I did not feel the same about the former.
I would never try to say that what Evan does is right. I would never claim that he has good reason to lie about such a sensitive situation and then use it for his own personal gain. He does not. It is such an unforgivable situation. And yet, I still found myself empathizing with his character.
In the beginning, at least.
As someone who struggles with anxiety, I can imagine how hard that initial meeting would be. One of the ways that anxiety manifests is by attempting to always please everyone. As Evan tries and fails to reveal the truth to Connor’s parents, you can practically feel your throat constricting and your breathing getting quicker much in the same way that his does.
He is trying to fight his inclination to just say what they want to hear because he knows that it is not true. When his anxiety overtakes him and he gives in, it is a point of no return.
How do you come back from that? How do you reveal the truth? Every choice he makes after that is selfish, uncomfortable, and not very well thought out.
Evan is an immature high school student making decisions that feel good in the moment. It can be easy to forget considering the poorly made decision to cast ten-years-older-than-high-schoolers Ben Platt as a high schooler.
Ben Platt was praised for his role as Evan Hansen on Broadway. In fact, he won a Tony for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical. The show was very highly regarded. After Hamilton, it is one of the most popular shows to come out in the last decade. It’s no wonder Ben Platt was asked to reprise his role for the film adaptation. But was that the right decision?
Well, no. To put it simply.
Don’t get me wrong – I like Ben Platt. In fact, I even think he is pretty good in the movie. He has been playing Evan Hansen for years and has the character beats down perfectly. But he looks out of place. It’s just the truth.
I will say that, for me, after the first ten minutes, I got used to it. I was too invested in the story to be completely taken out of it by his casting. That being said, when you do notice it, it’s weird. There are scenes of him running through the woods like a young man and instead he looks like an adult pretending to be a teenager.
This kind of casting is nothing new but when the rest of the high schoolers are played by actors that look significantly closer to high school age, it can be hard to get over.
That being said, people have been comparing his casting to the nightmare-inducing design of the cats in the widely-panned Cats adaptation. I highly disagree with this assessment. Ben is distracting. The character designs of those cats practically ruined the film before it could even start.
They may be playing the same sport but they are nowhere near the same league.
Beyond Ben Platt, the movie is full of great actors doing great things despite having less than great material to work with at times.
Amy Adams and Julianne Moore are unsurprisingly great in the screentime that they have. Seeing two of the industry’s best be relegated to “mom” can be frustrating but they still turn in solid performances.
The real star is Kaitlyn Dever. Anyone who saw her in Booksmart or Short Term 12 knows that she has the acting range for several genres. Here, she plays the part of a sister who is torn between grief and a surprising lack of care well. Everyone in Connor’s family mourns his death in different ways. Zoe seems to be the only one who is fully honest about how they feel.
I genuinely cannot wait to see what she has in store for us in the future. Dever is going to be a major star.
Successful Musical Numbers
As previously mentioned, the original Broadway performance of Dear Evan Hansen was adored. It’s easy to see why when you hear the songs.
I thoroughly enjoyed every song throughout the movie. Both musically and visually, they were all interesting and performed so well that I continue to have some of them running through my head a week after seeing the film.
The one that really sticks out to me is the entirety of Sincerely, Me. Taking place around the time that Evan’s lie goes from somewhat innocent to full on manipulation, this number is a burst of fun.
It reimagines Evan and Connor’s “friendship,” as they ride Go-Karts and play Dance Dance Revolution. Having seen Evan up to this point as a shy, quiet kid so far and only seeing Connor as an intense student with a lot of inner demons, it is great to see them in these made-up scenarios accompanying the energetic tune.
Give It a Shot
As soon as the first trailer was released, Dear Evan Hansen became a constant punching bag for those on Twitter. It makes sense – it is JARRING the first time you see Ben Platt dressed as a high schooler. And the movie has a dark storyline that can be hard for some to connect with in any way.
I understand all of this and I can see why it would turn people off. For me, I felt indifferent when the trailer was first released. Neither excited nor dreading my eventual trip to the theater to watch it. I found, however, that the movie is an enjoyable one.
Some of Evan’s decisions will make you want to melt into your seat. He is like a train that is constantly barreling towards a town. The feeling of impending doom is so thick and hard to shake. But that feeling begs you to continue to watch. The performances and the musical numbers are an added bonus.
I know that I will be in the minority with this movie. I have already seen some of my colleagues declare it the Worst Film of the Year. It is not even close. Give it a shot, consider the ethics and moral dilemmas that Evan is faced with, and just watch everything unfold before you.
Even if you have to watch between your fingers, as your hand covers your face in horror.