REVIEW: Dear Evan Hansen [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 137 minutes
    Release Date: September 24th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures
    Director(s): Stephen Chbosky
    Writer(s): Steven Levenson / Steven Levenson (musical)

Just be yourself.

A bad day—exacerbated by Connor Murphy’s (Colton Ryan) unchecked, diagnosed rage—has Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) leaving the motivational platitudes behind when writing a therapist-assigned letter to himself that can easily be interpreted as a suicide note. We know this because Connor fatefully steals it, folds it into a tiny square, and puts it into his pocket before killing himself. Since the self-addressed page had “Dear Evan Hansen” at the top and a non-descript “Yours, Me” at the bottom, the bereaved parents (Amy Adams‘ Cynthia and Danny Pino‘s Larry) assume their son spoke his final words to an unknown friend. And because Evan suffers from crippling social anxiety, his lack of confidence to explain the truth leads him to turn their mistake into a very big lie.

If you’re thinking that sounds misguided, you’re correct. It is. Especially when the point is amplifying the conversation surrounding mental health. At best, Steven Levenson has decided to use a teenager’s suicide as a psychological parallel to another’s desperate need to cry out for help. At worst, he’s exploiting that death to provide an equally hurting teenager an unearned avenue towards getting everything he’s ever wanted … and, relatively speaking by comparison, everything Connor took for granted. Neither option is a good look and the room to maneuver through them both (which Levenson attempts) to try exiting the other side unscathed is razor thin. Six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, would argue he succeeded on-stage. A critical thrashing of the cinematic adaptation says the opposite. Reality exists in-between.

Because here’s the thing: Dear Evan Hansen is effective anyway. It hits its emotional beats. It conjures sympathy throughout its cast of characters, supplies a necessary reckoning (albeit with low stakes since Levenson would be an idiot to finish what he started without forcing his protagonist to face consequences), and contains catchy music (composed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). One could even argue that the changes made to transition to the big screen shore up some of the musical’s more glaring issues too. One: A new song entitled “The Anonymous Ones” reminds audiences that Connor and Evan aren’t the only students suffering from depression and that it manifests in myriad different ways. Two: reworking the central romance by shifting who initiates it makes things much less creepy.

You still can’t ignore the poor handling of the subject matter. Is Connor rendered into little more than a pawn? Yes. Is his death less about his pain and more about how it exposes Evan’s own? Yes. But what about the goal of focusing on Evan’s experience and the misguided things someone suffering from anxiety and depression might find themselves doing? Levenson chose to put the moral issues he has wittingly placed at the core of his work onto his lead character’s shoulders, for better or worse. He wants us to believe that it’s not him who’s exploiting Connor’s death, it’s Evan instead. And if you don’t dig too deep, he almost gets away with it since everyone (besides Connor) does get something from the lie.

Connor was killing himself regardless. His family (rounded out by Kaitlyn Dever as his sister Zoe) has that truth clouding every memory of who they wish he was. By pretending to have been his friend, Evan creates a bridge to better days. His fabrications remind them of a Connor that’s worthy of forgotten humanity at a moment when too much time had passed since it last appeared to them. A line of dialogue wherein the family tells Evan that he “gave us back our son” might be extremely on-the-nose, but it’s meaningful just the same. Receiving an adoptive family in return (Evan’s single mom, played by Julianne Moore, works so often that he mistakes her absence for absenteeism) pushes him to double-down so as not to lose them.

Merit does therefore exist in telling this story. I do, however, believe Levenson could have found a way to tell it without abusing a young man’s suicide since saying this is Evan’s story and not Connor’s isn’t a good enough excuse. It’s therefore up to you if the former outweighs the latter. Maybe the ends do justify the means, but only if you judge Dear Evan Hansen on what it is rather than what it could have been. Evan’s journey works as far as acknowledging his actions and realizing the fantasy he craved has been preventing him from seeing what he already had. His over-achieving classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) works too upon entering as a more robust character on-screen than she was on-stage by battling her own demons.

As for the production itself, there’s also as much good as there is bad. Besides some very weird cuts during “Waving Through a Window”, director Stephen Chbosky effectively transforms things visually to film. The use of montage during “Only Us” is nice and the constant callbacks to the day Evan fell from the tree (either as fiction with Connor present or truth with a secret) via quick glimpses helps us to keep straight what’s real and what isn’t. The same can’t be said for the casting, though. Platt (nepotism or not with his father Marc producing) might only be three years older than Dever and five older than Stenberg, but it looks like more. If the whole Broadway cast was retained, it’d be fine. It’s quite glaring otherwise.

Is that enough to derail the whole thing like some describe? No. The fact Platt played an eighteen-year-old in Pitch Perfect when he was nineteen is the exception while having him playing eighteen at twenty-seven is the rule. That’s not an excuse—it always looks bad. Does it look worse here than usual? Maybe. I have a suspicion, though, that his father’s involvement and him being the only principal Broadway holdover (I guess Ryan was an understudy at one point) has made things more volatile considering it’s easier to call out egregious decisions when there’s a paper trail. To his credit, Platt does a good job despite everything (he does play some scenes “bigger” than necessary). But it’s Dever and Moore’s contrasting subtlety that unsurprisingly stands out most.

[1] Universal Pictures Caption (from left) Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) and Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever) in Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Stephen Chbosky. Copyright © 2021 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Erika Doss/Universal Pictures Caption (from left) Alana Beck (Amandla Stenberg) and Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) in Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Stephen Chbosky. Copyright © 2021 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Erika Doss/Universal Pictures Caption (from left) Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) and Heidi Hansen (Julianne Moore) in Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Stephen Chbosky. Copyright © 2021 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.

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