Runtime: 137 minutes
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Writer: Steven Levenson
Based on: “Dear Evan Hansen” (2015) by Steven Levenson, Benji Pasek & Justin Paul
Stars: Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Danny Pino, Colton Ryan
By Calum Cooper
Dear Calum Cooper,
Today’s film was… an interesting one. It’s only been out a short while but it’s made quite the impression, given its status as a successful Broadway play, and the waves of scrutiny it’s been making on social media. Everyone seems to have an opinion, and a meme, about it. Then again, who doesn’t like a good meme?
The film in question is “Dear Evan Hansen” (2021). I confess I haven’t seen the stage play, so I don’t know if it’s a faithful adaptation. But after I saw the film, I found myself feeling drained, and not in the way it was aiming for.
Lots of people have said “Dear Evan Hansen” is the worst film of the year. It’s not. It isn’t even the worst musical of the year – that dishonour still belongs to Sia’s “Music” (2021). But not being as bad as it could’ve been doesn’t make something inherently good. And “Dear Evan Hansen”, despite its best intentions, is not good.
You have this kid – Evan Hansen (Ben Platt – reprising his role from the stage play). He’s a high schooler suffering from extreme loneliness, depression, and social anxiety. To cope with this, his therapist assigns him the task of writing letters to himself, a practice encouraged by his hard-working single mother Heidi (Julianne Moore). One of his letters is stolen by Connor (Colton Ryan), a classmate of his who is also struggling with mental health.
A few days later, Evan is called to the principal’s office. There, Connor’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) reveal that Connor committed suicide. They’ve misinterpreted the letter that Connor stole as a suicide note addressed to Evan. Evan tries to tell the truth, but, seeing how devastated Connor’s family is, he ends up going along with their belief that he was Connor’s only friend. And from there the lie only gets bigger and bigger.
This is the fundamental problem with this film’s story. I know what you’re thinking – lying is often a dramatic trope in dramas and coming-of-age stories. Yes, but the context around this particular lie goes beyond manipulative. I found it rather cruel. I know Evan is anxious, and that telling the truth in that moment wouldn’t have had a favourable outcome either. You could even say that if he didn’t lie we wouldn’t have a story. But none of those are good excuses for me. The lie gives Connor’s family a false sense of hope and closure, which we know will make their pain so much worse when the truth inevitably comes out. It’s also convoluted by nature as it relies on characters creating fake emails, and jumping to conclusions with a pole vault.
This lie is an undercurrent throughout the narrative. It’s especially frustrating as there are moments that I thought were quite heartfelt at first. Some scenes include Evan giving a courageous speech on how no one is really alone, or when he and his crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who also happens to be Connor’s sister, start dating. But then I remembered that Evan achieved these things through lying about a dead person to their family, and I just felt dirty. Evan is hard to engage with because of this, and the fact that he keeps the facade going for so long reveals a selfish streak that I severely struggled to sympathise with.
It doesn’t help that Evan’s anxiety and depression are caricatured. Like lots of people, I too struggle with social anxiety. I even identify with much of Evan’s philosophy – such as not speaking or opening up out of fear of rejection. But, without talking about it in a monolithic manner, anxiety is mostly an internal war. You’re fighting your own thoughts more than anything else. That doesn’t always translate to a visual medium, so the film compensates by overdramatising Evan’s anxiety through shaking, stuttering, sweating, and other things beginning with S. I found it to be a redundant way of portraying anxiety, especially when recent films like “Eighth Grade” (2018) and “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016) captured it so well.
From what I’ve heard, the source material has these problems too. But the film doesn’t seem to be doing anything else beyond a mere adaptation. It feels rather lacking as a piece of individual craftsmanship. It’s really disappointing as the director, Stephen Chbosky, has directed some brilliant films in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012) and “Wonder” (2017), both of which were very creative in their visuals and exploration of mental health. “Dear Evan Hansen” has an occasional good moment – such as when Evan stands apart from other students in a crossroads-esque corridor – but otherwise the film is mostly your basic shot reverse shot editing. I feel like little was added by making a film out of this play, especially given the mundane sets and odd cutaways to unrelated characters and events during certain songs.
Speaking of which, I wasn’t keen on the songs. I’ve enjoyed some of Pasek and Paul’s work in the past, but a lot of the lyrics felt laboured, and that mundanity I mentioned leaks into the presentation. I didn’t like “The Greatest Showman” (2017), but it at least had spectacle. The music of “Dear Evan Hansen” is confined to its suburban settings, and the film doesn’t play with its environment the way something like “In the Heights” (2021) does. Many of the songs take place in one stationary location – such as Zoe’s kitchen, or Evan’s bedroom, or Heidi’s living room – with most of the flair coming from those cutaways. It feels like people talking through song rather than making some musical declaration or expression. I’m not demanding that everything be “La La Land” (2016), but a little more energy or choreography would’ve been nice. I imagine it looks better on the stage, but again I’m not the right person to comment on that.
Despite what the internet would have you believe, there are some good qualities to this film. Chbosky’s direction is as confident and empathetic as ever. The themes on grief, friendship, and connection are welcome (even though they’re so overt they’re probably burned onto the film reels). And I thought the acting was generally strong too. My personal favourites were Julianne Moore, with her external gentleness contrasting her inner strength, and Kaitlyn Dever, with her character’s struggles to reconcile her brother’s actions with her need to grieve being a particular highlight. And although I don’t agree with Ben Platt’s casting due to his age and the awful CGI used to de-age him, it’s hard to deny how good his singing voice is.
Unfortunately, these don’t make up for how uncomfortable the whole thing is. I feel so drained by “Dear Evan Hansen” because it is a well-meaning film and, with a rewrite, could’ve been quite powerful. Part of me even wanted to like the film. But the story Evan fabricates, even with context, is so shockingly abhorrent, and the film never recovers from that. Anxiety, depression, and loneliness are very debilitating things to suffer from, but they’re not get-out-of-jail-free cards to your actions. Even if you want to dismiss this as a problem inherited from the source material, the editing, cinematography, and script don’t bring any sense of life or urgency to the film. What it did bring however was the feeling of cringe every time Evan dug his hole of lies a little deeper.
I’m sorry for how long this letter was, but then again I’ve always had a habit of getting carried away when it comes to cinema. “Dear Evan Hansen” has its merits, and fans of the play may find something to like here. But I personally couldn’t find much to enjoy. I was never angry at this film like I was with “Music”, but I did feel unclean throughout it. Perhaps that’s worse, but “Dear Evan Hansen” is at least only exploiting the most lachrymose. Maybe you will find more fulfilment in this film. But I shall take comfort in knowing that the actors and director still have a lot of good to offer in future projects.
I may also take comfort in the bottle of rum I have stored away, but that’s another letter for another time…