Dear Evan Hansen: Great Songs, Questionable Implications!
I first saw Dear Evan Hansen on the Broadway stage. Apparently, I was so blown away by the magic of theater that I didn’t pick up on the questionable dynamics. The story's clumsy handling in the movie brought those issues to light.
Dear Evan Hansen (2021) follows the protagonist of the same name (Ben Platt) after a letter he writes to himself as a therapy exercise gets in the hands of his classmate, Connor (Colton Ryan). Soon after this, Connor takes his own life. His parents find the note on him, thinking he and Evan were close. At first, Evan denies this but goes along with it — partially to comfort Connor’s family, partially to alleviate how alone he feels.
I initially saw Dear Evan Hansen in its initial medium, on the stage in Broadway. Apparently, I must’ve been so blown away by the magic of theater that I didn’t totally pick up on some of the more questionable dynamics happening in the narrative. Seeing the story handled more clumsily on the big screen called said dynamics more to my attention. I appreciate the story first and foremost for its intent of having a positive effect on those dealing with mental health issues.
However, like I mentioned in my review of Jack and Diane, when such sensitive topics like mental health, suicide, and other triggering subjects are portrayed in media, you must present it with the utmost carefulness. Otherwise, you may accidentally send the wrong message, which can have detrimental effects when viewed by a specific audience. This is sort of what happens for Dear Evan Hansen.
Yes, some rather unfortunate implications lie in the sowing of story beats. An ugly truth about the story is… Evan’s life improves tremendously after Connor’s death. It’s the catalyst for the entire plot, and boy is it uncomfortable to think about. In the eyes of a viewer in a poor headspace, they could potentially take this as confirmation that yes — maybe things would be better without you. I know that’s not at all the point the narrative wants us to focus on, but it is a glaring unpleasantry. I always appreciate when an attempt is made to destigmatize mental health. It’s a really important issue that so many struggle with, and the more we have an open dialogue about it the less alone those who suffer feel. Sadly, the quality of execution in the film wasn’t all there.
As mentioned, I initially saw the stage version of Dear Evan Hansen. In my opinion, the big screen takes away some of the majesty of the initial production. Musicals tend to have a greater sense of awe; they feel more tangible, real! This can lead to feeling stronger resonation with the story from them. Besides that, some aspects do not translate well. On the stage of Broadway, you’re far enough away from the actors that you can suspend your disbelief that they can be high school-aged, like the characters they portray — you can’t see the details in their face clear enough to tell.
I saw the film in IMAX, so that didn’t help as every visible sign of aging was made even more noticeable on Ben Platt’s face. I’m sorry, but I don’t know who they thought they could convince that he’s a teenager. Wardrobe aside, Platt looks like he could be a teacher! I understand the decision of why they had him revive his role — he was the original performer on Broadway after all. Not to mention, he has an amazing voice! But, he is jarringly and clearly not a high schooler! This makes his “misguided” actions come off as all that more dubious. We’re supposed to believe Evan kept the lie going because it was a youthful mistake. He’s too naive and without life experience to truly grasp how awful of a lie he’s weaving. He even initially sees it as well-intentioned to help Connor’s grieving family (without the foresight to how it would snowball). Not only that, but it was also from a place of selfishness on some level, a grasp at alleviating his loneliness. I can forgive an inexperienced near child for falling into such actions. Grown-looking Ben Platt? Less so. I feel like this could have potentially been dealt with either by deep faking Platt to look younger, or getting another actor who can also sing, or even have Platt’s voice imposed over theirs.
On a similar note, I was disheartened when I realized they cut the musical number “Good For You”. In the original production, this song’s purpose is to call out Evan on his bad behavior. In the big screen version, while he somewhat gets called out, it feels more like a slap on the wrist compared to what was dished out in the song. Finally, Evan Hansen takes up too much of the spotlight. Yes — he is the title character. However, I feel like many of the characters got significant screen time cut in order to put more focus on him. Take for example, Evan’s mother Heidi (Julianne Moore). Her character got significantly less focus, and that’s such a shame. Especially since the relationship between Evan and his mom is the major driving point of one of the songs, “So Big / So Small,” which could’ve given it a bigger emotional hit.
As for what works for the film, the music is exceptionally well done. It’s so good I can almost forgive the movie for the rest of its offenses. Almost. Another positive note is the acting (for the most part) feels realistic. Specifically, there’s this one scene in mind where Connor’s step dad (Danny Pino) finally allows himself to cry. Before this point in the film, his character was very stoic, and we get the sense he’s keeping it together for the rest of the family’s sake. At this moment he breaks down, and it feels so… realistic. Within Pino’s face is so much emotion, a look of genuine pain. The moments like that spruced throughout the film touched me, although still dampened comparative to the original.
I rate Dear Evan Hansen an Incluvie score of 3/5. There is a decent enough presence of people of color, women, and queer characters, but they all take a backseat to our lead.
I rate Dear Evan Hansen a total score of 3/5. The music is wonderful — wonderful enough that I don’t think you need to pay to sit in the theatre to be inspired. Just listen to the soundtrack, particularly “Waving Through A Window” and especially “You Will Be Found.”