Like most musical theatre fans, I was all over the “Dear Evan Hansen” Broadway cast recording when it was released in early 2017. The collection of pop tunes written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who were also behind the popular musicals “La La Land” (which I like) and “The Greatest Showman” (which I loathe) ranged from upbeat and fun to relatable and inspirational—songs like “Waving Through a Window” conveyed the loneliness of the musical’s outcast lead character, while something like “You Will Be Found” promised those outcasts that they matter.
But the songs’ lyrics alone don’t convey the full scope of the show’s plot, something I stubbornly did not delve too deeply in to until I saw the actual show on stage a couple of years later. Turns out, that was a big mistake. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn’t for a show that won six Tony Awards including Best Musical and seemed universally beloved to make me feel so uncomfortable. The more I sat with it, the more its problems revealed themselves, and those same problems carry over to the new film adaptation directed by Stephen Chbosky.
Ben Platt reprises his Tony Award-winning role as Evan Hansen, a high schooler who suffers from severe social anxiety and depression. He takes medicine, and sees a therapist, who recommends that he writes a letter to himself every day detailing what will be good about that day. When he’s printing out his letter at the end of a disastrous first day of school, fellow student Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), who also doesn’t have any friends, steals the letter from Evan. A few days later, Connor is dead by suicide, and the letter addressed “Dear Evan Hansen” is found on his person and believed by his parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) to have been written by Connor to Evan. The fact that Connor signed Evan’s cast that day further cements their belief that the two of them must have been friends, and Evan, unable to tell them the truth, goes along with it.
The way that “Dear Evan Hansen” handles this misunderstanding is often disturbing, especially in how wildly it varies in tone. Evan enlists Jared (Nik Dodani)—the closest person he has to a friend, although as Jared coldly points out to him, they are family friends, not real friends—to help him create a fake secret email account for Connor so that he can write more letters to make it look like he and Connor had engaged in actual correspondence. The song “Sincerely, Me” details this endeavor in a peppy song that’s partially sung by Connor and filled with humorous bits about Evan and Jared attempting to find the right voice for the letters meant to be from Connor. Not only is this a grossly convoluted cog in Evan’s scheme, but it’s just one of many times that the film uses the suicide of a young man as a prop to further the development of the other characters. By pretending to have had a relationship with a guy he actually never knew at all, Evan is able to ingratiate himself into the affluent Murphy family, who also see in Evan a conduit to learning more about the son and brother they never really knew or understood while he was still alive. Evan, who lives with his single mom Heidi (Julianne Moore), a nurse who is always busy working, sees in Cynthia and Larry the ideal parents, and in Larry especially the dad he never really had (even though the movie erases much of that ideation that was in the musical, particularly in the song “To Break in a Glove,” which was cut from the film). And he’s long had a crush on Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), and now he finally has an opportunity to get close to her. What begins as an honest mistake by a shy and awkward teenager quickly becomes manipulative. Evan digs a hole for himself that’s so big he will never be able to climb back out unscathed, but he also doesn’t seem to want to. As he gets closer to the Murphy’s, and as a project started with school president Alana (Amanda Stenberg) in Connor’s memory gains traction and grants Evan popularity for the first time in his life, he stops exhibiting any sort of regret about the lies he’s told.
The story takes advantage of Connor in other ways too, namely in the blame directed toward him and the narrow view of him as a person. When we first meet Connor toward the beginning of the film, he is the stereotypical angry outcast: dressed all in black—“school shooter chic” as some students taunting him say—and prone to loud, violent outbursts. Rather than attempt to understand why he might have felt the way he did, or what prompted these outbursts, the story uses them as a way to show how he made his family suffer. In the song “Requiem,” Zoe, Cynthia, and Larry sing about how they do not mourn him; lyrics like “we gave you the world, you threw it away,” suggest that they view Connor less as someone who was legitimately hurting, and more as someone who knew what he was doing and behaved selfishly. Later, the duet “Only Us” between Zoe and Evan sees the pair desiring to move their relationship away from anything to do with Connor. The finale does attempt to show the characters, Evan included, finally, really putting in the work to learning more about Connor, but even this is done in an uncomfortable way that shows a complete disregard for the privacy of a person in therapy.
Even setting the problematic story aside, “Dear Evan Hansen” doesn’t particularly translate well from the stage to the screen. There’s an artificiality to the stage that makes it easier for the audience to suspend their disbelief and become invested in what is happening. Placing a very serious story about depression and suicide where the characters also occasionally burst into song in a realistic setting just doesn’t work—especially when the majority of the songs are melancholy ballads that involve the characters just standing and singing. It frequently feels awkward, such as during the song “For Forever,” through which Evan tells the Murphy family a made up story about his and Connor’s supposed friendship. He stands up at the dinner table and starts singing, while the rest of the family just sort of stares at him with glazed looks in their eyes. And in “Waving Through a Window,” the song that opens the movie (the film unfortunately ditches the stage show’s opener, “Anybody Have a Map,” which contrasts the Hansen and Murphy families), the way the editing cuts the film in time to the beats of the music feels clunky.
Much has also been made of the casting of Platt, who at 27 years old is too old to be playing a high school student, and looks it (I’m personally convinced that Evan’s makeup was designed to make him appear drawn and anxious, making Platt in turn look even older, because I swear he’s looked younger in other projects I’ve seen him in recently). It’s easy to see why he was still cast, besides the fact that his father, Marc Platt, is a producer on the movie—gotta love some good old-fashioned Hollywood nepotism. Platt originated the role of Evan Hansen from workshops to Broadway, he has a big fan following, and he has a really lovely singing voice. His performance here feels too theatrical for film, however. The awkward tics he gives Evan are over-the-top and distracting. It’s a shame, because with some subtlety he could have turned in a decent performance. In fact, the only two actors who are genuinely good here are Dever and Moore. As Zoe, Dever has to wrestle with a lot of complicated emotions, and she does so well. And Moore gets one of the film’s few really good scenes when she sings the song “So Big/So Small” to Evan, a ballad about the day his father left their family. The motherly warmth she gives her character is sincere throughout.
Those who liked the stage version of “Dear Evan Hansen” will likely enjoy the movie. There are some changes, but the broad strokes of the story and music are still there. But this musical that uses shallow, inspirational lyrics to promote mental health awareness masks a story that sadly doesn’t seem to understand the proper way to talk about issues like depression and suicide at all.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 137 minutes. Rated PG-13.