The difference between intention and execution is typically not all that noticeable, but sometimes the target an artist aims for is far removed from the one they hit. That divide has rarely been as wide as the one existing between the stated themes of Dear Evan Hansen and the film itself. It is a movie with the best of intentions, but it’s destined to leave some viewers with the meanest of thoughts about the title character.
Evan (a twenty-seven year-old Ben Platt) is a teenager with Social Anxiety disorder. We know this because he says as much but also because his hands fidget, he looks to the floor a lot, and he sings (songs that others hear as normal talking). A well-meaning therapist, probably unlicensed, suggests he write and print positive, optimistic letters to himself to start his day on the right foot. Evan does just that while at school one day, but his written thoughts take a darker turn. Worse, the printout is taken by the school’s loner, Connor (Colton Ryan), who proceeds to go home and kill himself. Connor’s grieving parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) assume their son wrote the note and that the two teens were friends, and Evan — awkward, lonely, anxious, selfish, devious Evan — encourages that belief.
Look, I’m all for stories telling the sad truth about victims gaining power and becoming the villains, but where 2017’s underseen Taiwanese gem Mon Mon Mon Monsters and Nate’s arc on the second season of Ted Lasso get it right, Dear Evan Hansen gets it woefully wrong. Evan is an underdog of sorts, but letting him not just ride but steer this runaway train of emotional manipulation, inconsideration, and cruelty for most of an offensively long running time is a choice that severely undermines the very real themes at play and instead results in a train wreck of a movie.
Writer Steven Levenson adapts his own stage musical — one I’ve never seen meaning this is a review strictly of the film as it stands — alongside director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 2012), and its various beats are an incredibly difficult balancing act to pull off under even the best of circumstances. The talent on display here is a big push towards those exact circumstances as the cast also includes greats like Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, and Amandla Stenberg, but none of them can right the wrongs of Dear Evan Hansen.
While Evan’s initial response is one built on sympathy for the family, he quickly takes the support and kind words he’s receiving — his “friendship” becomes the focus of a movement to encourage reaching out to those around you so that no one feels so alone — and shapes them to his wants and desires. His mom (Moore) works too much, so he bathes in the attention of Connor’s parents. He’s long had a crush on Connor’s sister Zoe (Dever), so he takes this opportunity to bag her as a girlfriend. (This beat is its own source of contention as Zoe’s sudden attraction to Evan makes Malignant‘s bonkers story turns seem quite sedate by comparison.) He betrays the friendship of the film’s kindest soul, but don’t worry, the film ensures that she return the favor as one last hurrah towards inconsistency of character.
There are more plot beats that follow including an end reveal meant to encourage sympathy for Evan, but it’s the epitome of “too little too late.” By the time the end credits roll, there’s not a single character here who feels authentic, honest, or redeemed. Even Evan’s mom, the most grounded character here and given believable life by Moore, succumbs to the emptiness of Dear Evan Hansen‘s ultimate message. After learning her son’s been a real dick and has caused unbearable emotional harm, she essentially tells him “meh, who’ll remember this in a year?” We should all be so lucky as to forget it, but that seems unlikely.
It’s all so unfortunate too, as again, these are talented people telling what should have been an affecting and important story. Platt is a gifted singer, but he feels so out of place here and unable to pass for a teen (despite having originated the role on stage six years ago). Slumped shoulders feel like an ineffective effort to appear smaller, and the eventual (and inexplicable) erasure of his anxious mannerisms is a choice that seems ill-conceived across the board. Yes, you too can overcome your debilitating psychiatric disorder simply by making others feel like shit!
Did I mention it’s also a musical? While 2021’s other film musicals feature dance numbers and ensemble songs, Dear Evan Hansen sees its characters break into occasional song to impart both dialogue and exposition. While one sings others interject as if it’s merely a conversation, and when Evan’s public and entirely fictional ode to Connor’s friendship goes viral it’s not his song people are seeing, sharing, and reacting to, it’s just him talking. The device works well to elevate emotionally charged dialogue by crafting it in musical deliveries, but the songs never really break through with lyrics about being alone, refusing to care, or how Evan’s mom isn’t a U-Haul truck. (I may have misunderstood Moore’s song to her son about how she’s sticking with him for the long haul.)
The one thing Dear Evan Hansen gets right is that social media is a true scourge of modern society. It’s never the focus here, and indeed the unwashed masses who use it to blindly lift or bash others are never taken to task, but it’s a truth all the same. The idea that bullies who find popularity often become bullies themselves is also both present and ignored leaving only the more simplistic theme behind — be nice to others because you never really know what they’re dealing with in their own lives (and given the opportunity these motherfuckers will happily dance on your grave).