Dear Evan Hansen Synopsis: Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is an anxious, isolated high-school student who’s aching for understanding and belonging amid the chaos and cruelty of the social media age. He soon embarks on a journey of self-discovery when a letter he wrote for a writing exercise falls into the hands of a grieving couple whose son took his own life.
From the meteoric heights of its glowing Broadway debut to the shattering lows of negative reviews for the film adaptation, Dear Evan Hansen holds a divisive presence on audiences. Readers are likely aware of the film adaptation’s multitude of controversies, including the return of 28-year old Ben Platt as the titular teenager and dismissive comments about the film’s reduction of serious subject matter.
At the end of the day, all of these storylines wash away when it comes time to view the film. I never go into a movie with a vendetta or ill intent – so I was desperately hoping that Dear Evan Hansen transcended the overwhelming negativity. Unfortunately, this musical meditation on mental health and compassion lands with an unshakable repugnant streak.
Dear Evan Hansen is a challenging film to discuss. Director Stephen Chbosky presents competence across the board from a technical perspective, while emotive work from supporting players Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever infuse dimension and dramatic authenticity into their infrequent roles. None of these factors can prevent Dear Evan Hansen’s inescapable problems with its angst-ridden protagonist.
Platt’s awkward presence sticks out like a sore thumb. While he spots the clothing and nervous tics of an adolescent, the adult actor’s aged look feels like an SNL parody on the musical (I kept getting glimmers of Kyle Mooney with his overwrought delivery). Platt not only struggles in appearance, as the actor’s over-delivered performance does not play well to the screen’s toned-down tendencies. Every grimace and nervous expression strains itself to generate pathos. Films are supposed to immerse audiences in their narrative, yet Platt’s performance distracts the audience with every frame (and he’s in virtually every frame).
Now there’s the oh-so-controversial story. Without spoiling the details, Evan Hansen places himself in a precarious position after a simple lie spirals out of control. Not only are his decisions bewildering and lack empathetic self-reflection, but the whole film reduces a character’s suicide into a glorified plot device. Connor, the troubled teen who takes his own life, serves no presence other than teaching the protagonist a laborsome life lesson. The simplified reduction of suicide continues with the film’s mistreatment of mental health – as Evan’s struggles are never given dimension outside of his noticeable tics and the cheery message of affirmation he gives himself.
I don’t think this film draws a tenable road map for mental health understanding, often treating helpful solutions like therapy and medication as an afterthought in its favoring of crowd-pleasing music numbers. As someone with no context of the Broadway show, the sunny musical numbers make for an awkward inclusion. Simplistic, rah-rah lyrics and an overabundance of autotune create garish setpieces devoid of emotional impact. The blend of these broad, crowd-pleasing moments and the film’s heavy undertones never coheres into a succinct experience.
Like a teenager going through puberty, Dear Evan Hansen endures an awkward and dysfunctional transition to the big screen. If you’re looking for a film about someone finding themselves in the wake of suicide, I highly recommend Bobcat Goldthwait’s searing and self-aware World’s Greatest Dad instead.