DEAR EVAN HANSEN, based off of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical, is a tough sell. It centers around Evan Hansen (Ben Platt), a teenager with crippling social anxiety that prevents him from really engaging in high school life. It also doesn’t help that he fell out of a tree and is forced to wear a cast. To help cope, Evan’s therapist and his mom (Julianne Moore) encourage him to write letters to himself to help get out of his own head. In these letters, which begin “Dear Evan Hansen…”, he writes some of his deepest thoughts and feelings, including his crush on Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). When Zoe’s brother Connor discovers one of these letters while signing Evan’s cast, he takes it.
While Evan is initially scared that Connor will expose his secret to Zoe, the situation escalates even further when Connor commits suicide; the only thing in his pocket was the letter addressed to Evan. Connor’s mom (Amy Adams) mistakenly believes this letter was written by her son and shows Evan was Connor’s only friend. Therefore, he may have some insight into who Connor was, including what was going on during his final days. And well, things go downhill from there…
With all of the negativity surrounding DEAR EVAN HANSEN, I was admittedly expecting a much worse movie. I think it actually helped that I went into the film with low expectations because it made for a less negative experience. Yes, the main character does a horrible, indefensible thing by pretending he knows a student that committed suicide in order to gain notoriety and attention at school, as well as a love interest. It is particularly despicable that Evan’s contrived lies create a false understanding of Connor’s mental illness and aggression towards his friends and family. This leads to a gaslighting effect on Zoe, who was (by her own account) harassed by her brother her whole life. But it’s almost like no one was paying attention when the musical was on Broadway. This has always been the big problem of the story, one that the film and show itself acknowledges and does not glamorize, so it wasn’t really shocking to me when I saw it on-screen.
And yes, it is insane to have 28-year-old Ben Platt playing a high schooler. But you are also reading a review from someone who would be perfectly fine with the original Broadway cast of WICKED reprising their roles in the upcoming film, so that also didn’t affect my viewing of the film. I love the music, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (LA LA LAND and THE GREATEST SHOWMAN), and Ben’s phenomenal voice; I was glad to have his performance immortalized on film film. However, I do love the “high school” Ben Platt memes.
The main element of the film that did bother me is the at times weird tone that did not work, particularly some moments in the film that were seemingly meant to be comedic around Evan Hansen’s awkwardness but fell very, very flat. Platt’s portrayal of Evan’s tics also bordered on being more over-the-top than believable. Both of these instances are likely remnants of elements that work better on stage than on-screen, but that didn’t stop them from being cringey. On top of that, the over two-hour runtime was too drawn out for the big screen, but yet still wrapped up too quickly in the final act. I know that sounds like a bit of a contradiction, but at the end I was left wondering about consequences and whether the characters had really learned much from everything that happened.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN’s quick pivot from award-winning stage musical to the big screen may not bring the acclaim the studio was hoping for, but I don’t really understand all of the hate it is getting. The songs were amazing (mostly sung live) and isn’t that half of the battle in a musical? Not to mention, I really enjoyed the performances from Dever, Adams, and Moore. At the very least, I love that Hollywood is adapting Broadway hits into movie musicals, making them accessible to people from all over the world and all walks of life… and in this case, featuring the original star of the show. Next up is WICKED; they better not screw this up.
My review: C+