Review: Musical 'Dear Evan Hansen' Treacly, Flawed, and Manipulative

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 23, 2021

'Dear Evan Hansen'
'Dear Evan Hansen'  (Source:Universal Pictures)

Musicals aren't subtle; they're often big, bold, and brash. People's emotions spill out, compelling them to burst into song. Many musicals explore complicated subjects, including war, death, oppression, and grief. But "Dear Evan Hansen," a film attempting to convey the importance of connection, just doesn't work.

While possibly created with earnest intentions, "Dear Evan Hansen" is treacly, flawed, and manipulative. The film is an adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical, and I enjoyed some of the songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the music and lyrics for "The Greatest Showman" and "La La Land," films I deeply enjoy. Stephen Chbosky, who wrote and directed "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" (another coming-of-age novel and film adaptation) directs, and Ben Platt stars, reprising his stage role — a maligned casting choice due to his age.

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, who's gay), a high school senior, writes himself a letter about anxiety and depression, an assignment from his therapist. We see him take medication. Evan sings the infectiously catchy "Waving Through a Window" (still stuck in my head!) about feeling invisible and lonely.

At school, Connor (Colton Ryan), a troubled student, is made fun of; he screams at Evan, thinking he's laughing at him. Later, he impulsively signs Evan's cast and says, "Now we can both pretend we have friends." Picking up Evan's letter to himself, Connor spots a mention of his sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), whom Evan has a crush on, and grows angry; he storms off, taking the letter with him. When Connor commits suicide a few days later he's found with Evan's letter, and Connor's family mistakenly thinks Connor wrote it to Evan. Naturally, Connor's parents assume the two of them were friends.

At dinner with Connor's mother Cynthia (Amy Adams), stepfather Larry (Danny Pino), and Zoe, Evan sings about their fictitious friendship ("For Forever"). Connor's mom desperately wants to hold to Connor's memory, so she quickly welcomes Evan into their lives. Since he's alone a lot (raised by a working single mother), Evan frequently spends time at their house and bonds with each family member.

Accompanied by an incredibly talented supporting cast, Ben Platt gives an earnest, sincere performance. With a nice singing voice with vibrato, he truly captures Evan's loneliness, awkwardness, and fear through his body language, though his eyes lack emotiveness.

I understand the aching, desperate yearning for friendship and connection, but the musical's premise is completely flawed. It's gross to co-opt and exploit the story of a person who committed suicide and focus instead on a lonely, awkward guy, rather than on the pain or trauma of the suicidal person. The ensuing romance between Zoe and Evan is also creepy, due to Evan's deception. Connor's purpose in the film is to catalyze Evan's change, growth, and development.

Jared (Nik Dodani, who's gay) is a queer student who helps Evan write fake emails between Evan and Connor in order to fabricate their friendship. When Evan tells Jared what happened with Connor's family, Jared replies, "You know they think you're lovers." Connor sings the email Jared writes; initially, the words Jared writes for Connor are sexual. As Evan and Connor sing fake emails to each other in "Sincerely, Me," we see scenes of them doing fun activities together (such as go-cart racing). They sing, "Our friendship goes beyond your average kind of fun." Jared responds, "But not because they're gay." This is homophobic; a queer character singing these lyrics doesn't make them any less so. It's especially unsettling to see queerphobia in a film with so many out gay actors and with production design including social justice posters lining the high school walls.

The film provides an uneven depiction of mental health. Evan and Connor both feel isolated and lonely, and struggle with mental health. A confrontation between Evan and his mother (Julianne Moore) reveals Evan's internalized ableism. He claims she wants to "fix" him because she encourages him to go to therapy and take medication, both beneficial treatments. The film offers a grim, unforgiving look at addiction, which Connor struggles with. In the song "Requiem," Zoe sings lyrics about how kingdoms never mourn a fallen "villain"; she calls Connor a "monster." In Connor's room, the camera shows Evan's point of view as he focuses on holes Connor has punched in the walls. However, in a solid scene, Alana (Amandla Stenberg, who's non-binary and gay) talks to Evan about setting up The Connor Project, a student group to help students with mental health. They share that they both have depression and anxiety, and detail the medications they each take. I really liked Alana's song "The Anonymous Ones," new for the film and co-written by Stenberg.

While I have "The Greatest Showman" soundtrack on steady rotation, I beg of Pasek and Paul to stop using the lyrics "broken parts," occurring in both the "Greatest Showman" song "This Is Me" and in "Words Fail" in "Dear Evan Hansen." As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I understand the impulse to label yourself "broken" or a "mess," and to even feel that way sometimes. But here, it comes across as incredibly ableist, especially considering the stigma associated with mental illness.

While I have empathy for Evan's initial plight, watching the film made me extremely uncomfortable. Evan exploits Connor's death and Connor's family's grief for his own gain, so he will feel wanted and accepted. Strangely, it reminds me of the Sandra Bullock '90s rom-com "While You Were Sleeping," another film about a desperately lonely person who, due to a misunderstanding, becomes enmeshed in a family. What's possibly forgivable in a charming rom-com feels unforgivable in a film (even a musical) exploring suicide and mental health.

I didn't hate the film, but I didn't enjoy watching it either. Yet, I hummed along to some of the melodies. While perhaps well-intentioned, "Dear Evan Hansen" is deeply problematic, plagued by flawed and manipulative writing, queerphobia, and ableism.

"Dear Evan Hansen" is available ON DIGITAL NOVEMBER 23, 2021