Dear Evan Hansen, the film adaptation of Steven Levenson’s multiple-award-winning stage musical, is ostensibly a nice little movie about a teen trying to overcome Social Anxiety disorder, about learning that it’s OK to be anxious and depressed and that being medicated for those things, if necessary, is normal and healthy. But it’s really a monster movie, a picture in which a troubled kid gets away with monstrous behavior because he’s anxious—oh, so anxious—and just can’t help himself. Meanwhile, another kid dies by suicide and everyone, including his own mother, grasps at straws to think of anything good to say about him. This is a movie that repeatedly calls out a dead kid just to make its points. If that’s your idea of entertainment—or even just adequate message-based filmmaking—run, don’t walk, to see Dear Evan Hansen.
It’s entirely possible that Dear Evan Hansen worked better onstage, where it’s easier to accept signs and signals writ large, especially when they arrive in the form of pseudo-revelatory songs belted show-biz-style. I have not seen the stage production, but watching the movie version—directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and starring now-28-year-old Ben Platt, reprising the role he originated on Broadway—I felt a creeping sense of sorrow for anyone who had ever bought a ticket to this ill-advised medicine show. Because the movie goes down like a horse pill.
Platt’s Evan is a high-school senior whose life is ruled by anxiety and depression. His father went AWOL long ago, and his hardworking mother, Heidi (Julianne Moore, giving her all in a thankless role), struggles to raise him alone. His therapist has advised him to write helpful letters to himself every day, as a way of bolstering his courage for whatever may lie ahead. On his first day of high school—his arm in a cast following a summer accident—he writes one of those letters, in which he confesses his love for a classmate, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), and then accidentally prints it out at school. Connor (Colton Ryan), the school loner—we know this because he wears black clothing and (shudder) dark nail polish—makes it to the printer before Evan does, and reads the letter. Because Zoe is his sister, Connor thinks the letter is some sort of scheme on Evan’s part, a ploy to make him blow his gasket in public, as everyone always expects him to do. He pockets the letter and storms off. The next day, Evan—and everyone else—discovers Connor has died by suicide, a revelation that’s dropped as if he’d failed to come to school because of a hangnail.
The complication is that before Connor discovered the letter, he’d signed Evan’s cast in large, definitive letters, either as a mean joke or an awkward attempt at friendship—the movie itself isn’t sure which. Because Evan has no other friends (save one, Jared, played by Nik Dodani, whose deadpan sarcasm is a relief from the movie’s relentless earnestness), everyone, including Connor’s grief-stricken but weirdly clueless mother (a quivering Amy Adams), comes to believe that he and Connor were friends, and probably lovers. Evan comes to relish this role of make-believe best buddy to the plot’s sacrificial suicide kid, and he plays it to the hilt until finally—an eternity later, really—his lies catch up with him.
Is that even a plot? I’m still not sure. The movie weaves a precarious case of special pleading for its main character while reassuring us that the dead kid really didn’t have much of a personality to begin with—until, miraculously, minutes from the end, we’re graced with the revelation that Connor, too, was a real human being. With feelings! And he even played guitar! Meanwhile, Platt, dressed in an assortment of kindergarten-style stripey T-shirts, looks a little too much like Will Ferrell playing a full-grown man stuck in the mind of a teenager. He hits one sensitive song after another—most of them about being an outsider looking in, and the like—out of the sing-your-heart-out ballpark. Many have already noted that Platt now looks too old to play a teenager, but that’s hardly the movie’s gravest sin. Dear Evan Hansen, so exquisitely engineered to give us all the feels, is really a story about a megalomaniac in training. Don’t fall for it.
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911 or seek care from a local hospital or mental-health provider.
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