If you can watch the movie Dear Evan Hansen and imagine Evan Hansen as an actual teenager instead of a 26-year-old man playing a teenager, then you can kind of see the contours of how such a deeply problematic and uncomfortable narrative would have a prayer of working. But the fragile concept of exploring mental health falls apart completely with Ben Platt attempting to reprise his Tony-winning role for the big screen. There’s a sound concept lurking underneath all the schmaltz and sociopathy, which is that we’re all fighting our private battles. The problem is that the entire premise of Dear Evan Hansen rests on an exploitative lie that you could maybe forgive from a teenager in over his head, but when that’s stripped away, the entire façade of the story falls away and you’re left with a deeply uncomfortable and gross experience that doesn’t know how to explore mental illness with any genuine empathy.
Evan Hansen (Platt) is a high school senior suffering from social anxiety disorder. His therapist has assigned him to write letters to himself to boost his self-esteem, but while in the library one day, Evan gets brutally honest with himself only to accidentally print the letter, which gets discovered by Connor (Colton Ryan), a fellow student suffering from his own mental health battle, who, moments after signing Evan’s cast, angrily takes the letter. Days later, it turns out that Connor committed suicide and his wealthy parents Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) as well as his sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who Evan has a crush on, believe that Evan wrote the letter to Connor and that the two were friends. Evan chooses to not only go along with this assumption but then embellishes it to pretend that they were best pals, which then spirals out of control when Class President Alana (Amandla Stenberg) wants to start “The Connor Project” to raise money in Connor’s memory. Evan starts to find the love and acceptance he’s been looking for, but it’s all based on a heinous lie.
This is an incredibly difficult needle to thread, and Dear Evan Hansen ends up impaling its fingers. The core problem with Dear Evan Hansen is that it’s a story that wants to have everything both ways. So you need to take mental health seriously when it comes to Evan and what he’s suffering, but Connor, because he’s dead, barely in the movie, and most people think he was a problem child at best, is worthy of exploitation even when that exploitation is minimized to simply serving as a way for Evan to learn a lesson that maybe you shouldn’t use the memory of people who commit suicide for personal gain. The film doesn’t carry any sympathy for Connor until the very end of the movie, and at that point it’s wrapped up into a montage with a neat little bow rather than wrestling with any complexity.
To give you an idea of how gross this gets, after Evan sings a song to Connor’s parents where he makes up an entire friendship of hanging out in an orchard that Connor loved, he then needs to forge a bunch of emails to further prove their friendship. So then there’s a “fun” song where they make up Connor’s voice to further cement that fake friendship and Connor is basically a mean puppet, and it’s just so astonishingly misguided that you can’t believe this was part of a Tony-award winning musical. Maybe it works better on the stage (full disclosure: I haven’t seen the stage performance), but seeing it on the screen I was aghast that a show that professes to be about the importance of mental health could be so callous about a teenage suicide victim.
Again, maybe you can get away with it if Evan is a teenager and there’s an innocence there to the callousness and that he’s shitty in the way all teenagers are shitty because they don’t know any better, but that’s not the case here because by having Platt reprise his role, the film can’t possibly work. It’s not that older actors can’t play teenagers, but not all actors can play teenagers and at 26, Platt looks 26. It is unintentionally hilarious at best that he’s playing a teenager in a “How do you do, fellow kids?” kind of way, and then can be downright uncomfortable as he tries to romance Zoe, not only in the context of the story (Evan is a creep and you really have to forgive him in a way the film never comes close to achieving) but because Dever can credibly play a high schooler and Platt can credibly play a post-graduate student.
This confluence of weak casting and weak storytelling combined with catchy songs comes together in the film’s showstopper piece, “You Will Be Found.” The breakout hit from the show doesn’t have much visual flair (director Stephen Chbosky takes a largely unremarkable approach to the show, and while his previous films have shown a great eye for human connection, the material fails him here), so when you strip it down, you get how the premise fails completely. You have a good message—everyone is fighting their own battles and we should listen—but it’s based on a lie. No one knew Connor, not even and especially Evan Hansen, but they’re using it to feel good about themselves. A sharper film would use this for dark comedy and biting critique of how we use feel-good narratives regardless of the messy truths to assuage our own egos (*ahem*World’s Greatest Dad*ahem*), but Dear Evan Hansen wants it both ways—to uplift and to later condemn. The film’s thinking seems to be that yes, it’s a horrible lie, but there’s a larger truth that’s worth it. But that’s the same lie that Evan is embracing! And the musical then wants him to learn why that’s bad while never making the same accounting of itself and interrogating its own phony uplift.
While I can understand the enmity and loathing people have towards this musical, for me, it’s all just remarkably misguided. I think it’s worthwhile to tell a story about engendering empathy for mental illness and fostering connection, but you have to build that on some kind of truth and not a misunderstanding that is so deeply repulsive that it sours everything that comes after. It’s nice to pluck a song like “You Will Be Found” out of context and say that this is an uplifting musical, and yes, devoid of context, it’s good. But the context of Dear Evan Hansen with a 26-year-old man playing a teenager who is apparently a sociopath damns the entire project to an abominable creation that will mystify and stun viewers who see through its crass veneer.
Dear Evan Hansen opens in theaters on Friday, September 24th.
KEEP READING: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Cast and Character Guide: Who Plays Who in the Broadway Musical Adaptation?