A couple of years ago a friend and I had a silly argument over the plot of stage musical Dear Evan Hansen, which had just come to London. I had only heard the music and read the book of the play; she had actually seen the show. The argument was whether it was about social media or suicide. In the end, we agreed to disagree and now the fight is brought up when we want to laugh at ourselves.
However, coming out of the cinema following a screening of Dear Evan Hansen, streaming in rage-induced tears, because we were both wrong, and I wished desperately that we weren’t.
Based on a stage musical by The Greatest Showman songwriters Paul and Palek, Dear Evan Hansen revolves around the titular character who is a high-school kid struggling with his mental health. When the school “bully” Connor commits suicide, Connor’s parents mistake Evan as their son’s best friends. Instead of contradicting them, Evan goes along with the lie, which spirals out of control.
Directed by Stephen Chbosky, Dear Evan Hansen is an OK film. At times, it can be absolutely terrific. There’s genuine moments of honesty and beautiful tender glimpses of a better film underneath Ben Platt’s gangly stature and Evan’s batshit actions. Kaitlyn Dever and Julianne Moore deconstruct Connor’s lies in different ways; their own hurt and anguish unfolding in tender songs such as Requiem and So Big/So Small. On top of this, Amandla Stenberg’s Alana has an incredible song about not recognising the troubles people go through and you don’t have to be as painfully awkward as Evan to be suffering from mental health issues.
When Dear Evan Hansen is good, it is very, very good.
However, when it is bad, it is rotten.
It’s funny that throughout the film, there are references to Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s the same school and later on we find out that it was one of Connor’s favourite books. The two are pretty comparable; an anxiety riddled teenager struggles to reach out at high school and writes letters to no one in particular. Whilst Perks is a sensitive look at trauma, mental health, and getting the support you need, Dear Evan Hansen is shallow and uneven depiction of teenagers and the problems they face.
In fact, I would go as far to say that the film does a huge disservice to the subject matter it is trying to portray. By removing songs and moving a lot of the focus away from Connor’s grieving family – and disgustingly turning Zoe into this token of Evan’s affection – it just flounders in this story about a kid who does something so unforgiveable, and it paints those with open mental health issues are actually monsters or burdens.
Here’s the rub; Evan’s actions – and also Alana’s big drastic movie – can make for an intriguing story. Of course, teenagers, mentally ill people, and for god’s sake, all of humanity, can make baffling decisions because they thought they were doing the right thing. Evan’s choice to lie about his relationship with Connor, in the stage show anyway, comes from both the Murphy’s desperation to reach out to their son, even after his tragic death, and also Evan’s longing for a wholesome family to take care of him.
Yet the film fails to dive into these complexities about human fallibility. It bobs upon the surface, happily ignoring the sharks gnawing for substance. Just when you think it is about to make a smart commentary about how we treat suicide, mental health, and social media, it pulls away. For example, after an incredible song about not feeling alone, Evan sings to Dever’s Zoe all the things he loves about her but disguises it as her dead brother’s thoughts
Dear Evan Hansen is gleefully happy to put these issues on the wayside as long as Ben Platt can awkwardly play a character ten years his junior and try his best for an Academy Award. That’s not to say that Platt isn’t amazing, because he is and rightfully deserves the accolades he got whilst performing the role he originated on stage (where actors ages don’t really matter as much on screen.) Platt is just heinously miscast here, and the torch could’ve happily been passed onto young actor just waiting for his big break, who may bring a fresh take on Evan’s story.
I’m getting off track, which is frustrating because I am doing exactly what the film does – forgetting about Connor. The troubled young boy who tap-dances on screen a scene or two away from the movie announcing he just committed suicide. The boy whose family and their all their heartache gets squashed into one song. The boy who no one reached out too because he was scary and an addict and full of so much hurt, that he took his own life. The boy whose cause everyone jumps on, only to ditch it after a few days. Only in the last few moments does Connor Murphy get his humanity back; a reprieve for a sorry soul in a sensitive new song written for the film. But does it come too late?
Dear Evan Hansen focuses on the wrong issues, and in many ways, the wrong boy. Hm, boy is the wrong term. Certainly, I’d like a bunch of characters to take forefront.
There are many more things that I would like to say, so many angry thoughts and rage-inducing feelings mixed with these great, fleeting ones.
So, I guess in the end Evan was right in the end – words fail.