Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen

In Theatres: 
Sep 24, 2021
Running Time: 
137 minutes

Dear Evan Hansen is a six-time Tony award winning stage musical that has captivated audiences since its Broadway debut in 2016. I’m not the biggest theatre person, but even I had heard of it before; that’s how widespread it has become. Five years later, Ben Platt, who played Evan Hansen for the musical, is once again putting on the arm cast and stepping into the spotlight for its film adaptation. There has been a lot of talk about how the now 27-year-old Platt is too old to be playing a high school student, and while that’s true, his age is one of the least problematic aspects of the film. At best, Dear Evan Hansen is a cringe-inducing teenage drama that only scratches the surface in what it says about mental illness. At worst, it’s a manipulative mess that delivers all the wrong impressions as it exploits its subject matter.


Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a socially awkward and anxious teen who struggles with fitting in and being accepted by nearly everyone around him. At the suggestion of his therapist, he writes a letter to himself saying exactly what’s on his mind but that letter ends up in the hands of Connor (Colton Ryan), another school outcast who has been deemed weird by the general student body. Ultimately Connor ends up committing suicide and the only thing found on him was Evan’s letter that he wrote to himself. Connor’s parents, unaware of the truth, believe it to be his suicide note written to his best friend Evan. Evan decides it’s easier to go along under the guise of being Connor’s best friend rather than confess to the truth. But as the attention grows and students want to honor Connor’s memory, the lie only gets bigger and bigger.


The entire film centers around mental health issues, which makes it all the more painful that it feels like more of a hindrance than an ally. Its biggest flaw is that it treats mental illness as the defining characteristic for these characters when in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth. For Evan, his anxieties are what keep him from making friends, having a love life, and being “normal.” They also give him an excuse to lie about everything, going as far to recruit his one family friend to concoct a whole bunch of fake emails between him and Connor so as to offer evidence of their friendship. It’s all captured through the song “Sincerely, Me” and while the song itself is catchy and upbeat, it leaves a bad note in your ears. Listening to the lyrics, the whole thing is basically saying how you just need to keep your head up and change yourself into something better. It’s that simple! It’s like the whole “Draw an Owl” joke where Step 1 is to draw a few circles and Step 2 is to draw the rest of the owl. The song, and much of the film, acts like anxiety is something that can be dealt with through sheer force of will; that if you put a smile on your face and break out into song and dance that you’ll fix it all. It doesn’t work like that.


Connor struggled with his own mental illnesses, but we barely see him as a character and it’s only through Evan’s reimagining of him or how his family remembers him. Our only actual view of Connor as a character is him first bullying Evan, making amends, and then bullying him again when he finds Evan’s letter because it mentions Connor’s sister, Zoey (Kaitlyn Dever), who Evan has a crush on. Two mental illnesses don’t make for a right state of mind. Speaking of Zoey, Evan’s big lie about Connor comes over even more upsetting when it’s used to essentially get closer to her. I get that Evan is only seeking the family and attention he doesn’t have, but that still doesn’t make it right. The whole thing is very manipulative, and to attribute it mostly to mental illness is unfair and distasteful.


Everything comes to a head when Evan shares his letter to himself under the guise of Connor’s suicide note with his classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) to show proof that he and Connor were friends. Alana then takes the note and posts it all over social media in the hopes of collecting more funds for a Connor memorial project that the students are working on. Everything about the scene is disgusting, from Evan’s lying to Alana’s betrayal of trust. Alana has her own anxieties as well, as we discover through her singing “The Anonymous Ones.” Before the scene, Alana was the best and most well-rounded character. She’s someone who looks like everything is going great on the outside, but inside she struggles to keep up the charade. That song is the closest the film gets to connecting with mental illness.


Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t do the stage play any favors. After watching the film I can’t help but wonder if the play is any better or maybe there are just some things that don’t translate well from the stage to the screen. Regardless, the film does a poor job in its depiction of mental illness. For Dear Evan Hansen, it’s a spectacle and a prop. Nothing says that more than a scene towards the end when Evan scrolls through social media trying to find someone who was friend’s with Connor so that he can get to know who the real Connor was. After finding someone who went to rehab with him, Evan is sent a video of Connor playing guitar in what looks like a group therapy session. Evan immediately turns around and shares the video with everyone, from Alana to Zoey to Connor’s parents, as if to offer it up as some sort of token of redemption. It’s all in bad taste. 


Mental illness is such a complicated subject, and Dear Evan Hansen attempts to boil it down into a simplistic, one dimensional idea. It’s a film that sings into the void and offers little in the way of redeeming itself. Maybe the stage play is better in conveying that message. After watching the film, however, I have no desire to find out.

Matt Rodriguez
Review by Matt Rodriguez
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