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The ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Movie Should Be More Grounded

The smash hit musical generally has the right fixings for a timely feature film, but it needs some grit to balance out its feel-good nature.
Dear Evan Hansen Poster
By  · Published on November 30th, 2018

For as much as the media deals with topics surrounding mental health, only a select few cultural products vehemently speak to consumers when it comes to reconciling fictional portrayals and real life. In the last couple of years, the musical Dear Evan Hansen has proven to be one such property. Having already been remarkably lauded by critics and accolade circuits alike — taking home six Tony Awards last year — the Broadway breakthrough will continue to thrive on the big screen as a movie.

Deadline reports that Dear Evan Hansen will be given the studio film treatment courtesy of Universal Pictures. Stephen Chbosky, best-known for his coming-of-age novel and its accompanying movie adaptation The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is in discussions to helm the film.

Numerous members of the stage musical’s core team will reportedly be involved as well. The screenplay will be penned by original book writer Steven Levenson. He, along with music and lyrics scribes Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Marc Platt (Mary Poppins Returns), and Adam Siegel (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), will contribute to the movie in a producorial capacity.

For the uninitiated, Dear Evan Hansen navigates the life of its titular teenager, who is severely socially anxious. Feeling isolated and disconnected from the world, Evan does something very misguided after a classmate named Connor commits suicide. Although both boys were never necessarily close — Connor has, in fact, been portrayed as a kid with a sketchy record — Evan puts on a charade of friendship in order to ostensibly act as an anchor for the family of his ill-fated schoolmate.

In this day and age, with social media waiting to capture every little move, Evan’s actions cannot go unnoticed. When he accidentally becomes the subject of a viral video as a result of them — running into newfound adulation from his peers — he eventually has to make the choice between coming clean and potentially losing that popularity or continuing the masquerade.

Overall, it’s been a big year for musical adaptation announcements, and I’m even observing a discernible trend among a few of them that focuses intently on outcasts, as well as anxiety and its varying effects as a whole. But frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken Hollywood this long to greenlight Dear Evan Hansen in the first place.

The musical has been a huge talking point for years, particularly among younger theater fans online. After its premiere on the Great White Way in late 2016, it continued to secure mainstream appeal thanks to celebrity word-of-mouth and, of course, awards recognition. In fact, one of my earliest FSR pieces was actually written in support of a movie spawning from Dear Evan Hansen after last year’s Tonys ceremony. It already felt opportune even then.

Truthfully, such timeliness and salience have presented a catch-22 situation for Dear Evan Hansen. The play has been opened up to extreme scrutiny, with scores of adoration and loathing plastered across the Internet in equal measure. In my case, I sit in the “Dear Evan Hansen can be enjoyable even with its imperfections” camp. I do think the film adaptation will have value, if only it finds a more solid narrative via some notable alterations.

In general, Dear Evan Hansen has the right foundation for an important story about mental illness, isolation, self-loathing, and ultimately self-acceptance. Its songs and overarching narrative of an outcast finding their way in the world are universal enough to encourage a sense of timelessness, despite the integral nature of modern-day technologies to the show’s plot.

Dear Evan Hansen showcases an undeniable love for all of its characters, too. Most are allowed to exists in shades of grey, with Evan himself being neither the hero nor villain of his own story. While he suffers deeply from an inability to communicate with others, he isn’t especially malicious. It’s true that Evan stumbles through virtually all of his circumstances — overwhelmed by the fallout of his actions — and merely emerges on the other side by virtue of sheer luck. Nevertheless, he is also willing to acknowledge that he has done questionable things and learn from them.

That said, Dear Evan Hansen is packaged in such a way that it is more palatable than confronting when it needs to be. It ultimately glosses over what should really be a more nuanced representation and discussion of mental illness. The show doesn’t totally commit to examining the sensitive multifaceted nature of anxiety. Hence, although it encourages the acceptance of mental health conditions once it ends, the musical’s lack of subtlety is rather obvious.

The inclusion of morally ambiguous characters in Dear Evan Hansen does prevent it from fully falling into a horrible pit of stereotypes for the most part. However, I would love to see more grounded portrayals across the board; ones that consistently and consciously take every character into account, be it girlfriend, mother, or foe. This would at least facilitate a smoother and more fulfilling ending when it’s time for Evan to face the music.

Clearly, Dear Evan Hansen already sports great music and characters earnest enough for us to empathize with. That coupled with Chbosky’s cred as a coming-of-age director and I’m actually more excited about seeing it on screen than I am concerned to mull over its shortcomings. However, problems do exist within the musical’s book and Universal and co. ought to make a fastidious attempt to create a film that’s more holistically worthwhile.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)