“Dear Evan Hansen’s” story about a teenage high schooler addressing the struggles of living with mental illness and finding the support system to give his life worth through song looks good on paper. And it even sounds better when it brings Ben Platt to reprise the titular role that he made famous in the Tony Award-winning Broadway show. Then there’s the fact that Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being A Wallflower) is directing. It’s almost as if this was going to be a solid film from the get-go. Though adapting any Tony-award-winning musicals into a movie does have its challenges, what works on stage doesn’t necessarily translate well to a theater. It does make it more assessable, though. That being said, the film’s problems don’t lie so much with the message itself but how the message itself gets lost as it’s focused on the unbelievable story rather than addressing the seriousness of mental illness.
“Dear Evan Hansen” centers on Evan Hansen (Platt) an anxious, isolated high-school student who’s aching for understanding and belonging amid the chaos and cruelty of the social media age. Evan is such a wallflower that no one gives him the time of day, as noted by the arm cast that has no signatures. As Evan tries to make it through high school without any trouble, a writing exercise assigned by his therapist falls into the hands of Connor (Colton Ryan), a classmate who has problems processing his emotions. And things snowball as Connor commits off-screen suicide, and Evan’s letter, which was addressed to himself, was found nearby. As a result, Connor’s grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) and his sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) believe that Connor wrote his last words to Evan.
The thing is, Evan was never in a friendship with Connor. And as much as he tries to tell the truth about it, he creates a lie to help give Connor’s parents the comfort they seek during their time of grief. But what started as a little white lie becomes bigger than something he can control as Connor’s story and the letter go viral. Though many are now finding the courage to come out with their mental struggles, Evan finds himself caught in a web of lies and deceit.
It requires a certain degree of disbelief to buy into Hansen’s lie or go along with knowing the severe consequences that await when the truth comes out. And the film expects us to fall in line with the latter because Hansen is struggling with so much mental illness and the difficulties of fitting in a high school social hierarchy. Much of the pain Evan suffers and the joy he expresses is communicated through various musical numbers that Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote. These songs also fit into the film rather nicely as it can go from regular everyday conversation to breaking out into song organically.
“Dear Evan Hansen” tries to pass itself off as a piece of hope and positivity. But much of the messaging gets lost within Evan’s lie and how long it goes on for. Let’s face it, Evan is unwilling to take any accountability for what’s happening and doesn’t see the consequence of his actions. Furthermore, the film wants us to believe that Evan is justified because he was trying to give Connor’s parents the solace they needed. Evan is their only connection to their son, who was emotionally distant to them.
Evan takes advantage of their grief to finally have that sense of belonging and worth that he had been so desperately looking for. But, yes, he is naive for he’s found happiness even though he obtained it by false pretenses. And at times, he loses that sense of right and wrong. Sure, his workaholic mother (Julianne Moore) tries to provide he needs by encouraging him to write essays for college scholarships and reminding him that he needs to keep up with his therapist appointments. But In the end, Evan feels abandoned by her. So Evan builds a relationship with Connor’s parents and sees them as the family that he’s never had.
It’s so emotionally manipulative that I got sick to my stomach watching the story become more about servicing Evan’s mental state than it is about addressing the severity of mental illness. And the problems only worsen when Evan has to find ways to sustain the lie by providing vague answers to skeptics or create a colorful narrative based on what little Evan knows about Connor. So, when the truth is conveniently revealed, it feels more forced than it does an organic part of the story.
Yeah, Platt, a soon-to-be 28-year-old, playing the role of a high schooler is questionable, but it is the least of the film’s problems considering that we’ve seen older actors play characters that are years their junior. It’s not so much that he isn’t right for the film role. After all, he did make it famous with his award-winning performance when “Dear Evan Hansen” was on Broadway back in 2016. Luckily, Platt is surrounded by a younger cast that looks closer to the characters’ age. That includes Dever and Amanda Stenberg, a classmate who uses extra circulars to distract herself from her own problems. Dever shines, as she’s always done, with a role filled with grief and pain, and a bit of hope whenever Evan speaks about Connor. Stenberg also does plenty with the amount that she is given and provides a few quiet scene-stealing performances. The role is elevated during her musical number, “The Annonymous Ones,” where she reveals a secret to Evan that no one else knows about.
Though the script pulls from the original Broadway show, the story about the little white lie spiraling out of control undermines the message about it being okay to seek help about mental illness. So much has been made about how Platt’s age is a distraction, but the reality is the film’s problems is more about Evan’s selfishness. For a film that centers on a character suffering from anxiety and isolation, it does very little to give hope and inspiration as it is so focused on giving us a story that is based entirely on a lie. These problems are compounded by the fact that Evan doesn’t face any real consequences from anyone he’s lied to. Perhaps that is the real lesson in all of this. That any lie, no matter the size, comes at a cost.
Evan Hansen in theaters September 24th, 2021.