In one fell swoop, Dear Evan Hansen has gone from Broadway sensation to critical punching bag. The film adaptation gave the musical bildungsroman exposure outside of the Broadway community and its fervent teenage “Fansens,” revealing what many consider to be an uncomfortable message about mental illness and redemption.
The story revolves around a high school senior with severe social anxiety who lies about being friends with a bully named Connor. After Connor commits suicide, the only thing found on him is a letter addressed to Evan, causing his forlorn parents to assume that he and Evan had a close relationship. But the letter is really a therapy exercise Evan writes to himself. As Connor’s parents, Amy Adams and Danny Pino depict their desperate grief with a heartbreaking fragility. I spoke with both actors about their moving performances in the interview clip at the end of this piece. Evan allows the Murphy’s to believe that he and Connor were friends, letting the lie snowball to the point where he becomes a school hero and dates the girl of his dreams—who just so happens to be Connor’s sister, played by Kaitlyn Dever. Dever sensitively captures Zoe’s ambivalent feelings about Connor’s death.
Some critics go so far as to call Evan sociopathic for his deceit, but perhaps we should consider that Evan is a mentally ill, deeply lonely kid who does not have a firm grasp on social cues. One aspect that star Ben Platt gets across so well is Evan’s deep yearning to have anyone in his life; he is virtually friendless, he rarely sees his working mother (Julianne Moore, who is largely absent from the film but nails her emotive solo “So Big/So Small”), and his father, who lives thousands of miles away with a new family, ignores his texts.
The lies begin with the good intention of comforting the bereaved Murphy family, but they escalate as they feed Evan’s ego and make all of his dreams come true. Evan foolishly allows the deception to intensify because he is young: his chemically imbalanced brain is still forming and teenagers often do incredibly stupid—and even awful—things. Adolescence is a tumultuous time period in one’s life riddled with angst, insecurity, and even devious deeds (perhaps not to the extent of Evan’s fabrications, but unfavorable nonetheless).
I am in no way excusing Evan’s incredibly wrongful behaviour; despite his mental instability and age, he should clearly know better than to exploit Connor’s suicide for his own gain. What he does to the Murphy family is truly terrible. But it is completely understandable why Evan gets entangled in this complex situation: it grants him the love and attention he’s always craved. In his heart, Evan is really just the sad little boy waving goodbye to the U-Haul truck in his driveway. Does this really make him a fundamentally evil person? The lyrics, particularly in the climactic “Words Fail,” make it very clear that Evan feels remorse for his actions. However, it would have been considerably easier to empathise with Evan’s naivete and youthful indiscretions if Platt was not in the lead role.
Much contention has been made over Platt’s casting. Although he won the Tony Award, many felt from the initial trailer footage that he looked too old and his casting was merely the product of nepotism (his father Marc Platt produces the film). These grievances are not entirely unfounded; in several shots, Platt does stick out like a sore thumb amongst his baby-faced co-stars. However, his hair is more distracting—a Buddy the Elf coif that seems to exacerbate his age, not hide it; it looks ridiculous compared to the perfect styling of the Broadway show: a geeky, fifties-style swoop that conveyed his characters’ nebbishness. External problems aside, Platt’s performance goes to the same stirring emotional heights as on stage, particularly in the melancholy scenes such as “Words Fail” where Evan buckles under the weight of his deceit. His gorgeous voice uplifts the sentimental pop/rock anthems.
Director Stephen Chbosky (Perks of Being a Wallflower) treads familiar territory, bringing the show to dynamic life in songs such as “Sincerely, Me” and “If I Could Tell Her” where Chbosky, not limited by the confines of the stage, shows eye-opening flashbacks and moments that flesh out characters’ relationships. But then there are scenes like “For Forever” where the film’s realistic and grounded tone becomes too dour, and the bland setting and static camerawork make the segue into singing seem awkward. But these occasionally dull visuals cannot take away the power of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s (La La Land, The Greatest Showman) rousing soundtrack and the simple yet potent lyrics.
One of the film’s major bright spots is Amandla Stenberg as Alana, a passionate student activist who organises a memorial for Connor. Alana’s thankless role on Broadway is given more of a spotlight with a new song “The Anonymous Ones” that shapes her into a more genuine, compassionate character than a self-centered overachiever.
Screenwriter Steven Levenson (adapting his own book) attempts to rewrite the often-criticised ending where Evan is forced to reckon with the devastating fallout of his falsehoods, along with the lovely new song “A Little Closer,” but there may be no right way to close such a hotly-debated narrative. Both Levenson and Chbosky could have used the film medium to explore certain themes such as performative activism and the hollow reality of social media in a more meaningful way, but they play it safe and lean on blanket inspirational platitudes.
For better or worse, Dear Evan Hansen has touched a cultural nerve, opening discussions on depression, grief, and morality. In spite of its flaws and the overwhelming discourse surrounding it, the film is still an affecting musical experience, largely due to the ensemble’s extraordinary performances. The film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen has glimmers of tender resonance, it’s just in need of a little more reinvention.
Caroline Madden speaks to Amy Adams and Danny Pino:
Dear Evan Hansen is out in US cinemas now
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian and does social media for Passion River Films. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.