“Dear Evan Hansen” Review: So Many Questions, Namely WHY???

(from left) Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) and Cynthia Murphy (Amy Adams) in Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Stephen Chbosky.

Information presented in this review may be triggering to some people. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Dear Evan Hansen had two strikes against it for me because A) I don’t like musicals and B) I have never seen the one it’s based on. I’ve heard all the praises sung in its name though, which never changed my decision to only see it if under the threat of death. Instead, they made a movie out of Dear Evan Hansen so, of course, I had to go.

Honestly, I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would. That doesn’t mean Dear Evan Hansen is good. No, I expected to hate it with a white-hot intensity. What I got instead were some lovely songs (written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land) and solid performances (namely from Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever) mashed between uncomfortable close-ups of Ben Platt.

Wait…maybe they weren’t close-ups. Maybe the surrealism of watching a grown-man sing the angsty songs of a tortured teen just felt like it was crammed in my face.

There are some huge problems with the basic premise of Dear Evan Hansen, ranging from small ($100,000 to rebuild an orchard?) to enormous (why would long-term victims of abuse suddenly believe their abuser was secretly a nice guy?). Despite these gripes, my biggest issue with Dear Evan Hansen is its treatment of suicide. The act itself is off-screen and distant, though often referenced. This allows it to steer the story without diving into the awful reality of Connor’s death. There’s also a jovial song early on, that uses the deceased as a prop. It’s so catchy and fun, you’re giggling before you realize it’s actually pretty gross.

Film and TV writers appear to be using suicide as a crutch lately, since writing it into a story automatically adds emotional heft. It feels dangerous though, during what’s considered a suicide epidemic and when most people who suffer from mental illness don’t actually attempt suicide. I’d like to see more narratives written about mental health that encouraged conversation without leaning into that lethal outcome.

I am extremely late to the Dear Evan Hansen party, though. Most people buying tickets for this film have already seen it onstage and they have very strong opinions about it. I enlisted the help of one such devotee, my friend Kristi Bernstein, who shares her thoughts below.

“I need to be upfront.  I saw Dear Evan Hansen with the original cast in NYC.  I came home and downloaded the soundtrack and have listened to it on loop since then. I am a Dear Evan Hansen Superfan.  So, it is with love of this show that I write this review. 

First, I need to say something positive.  Ben Platt has the voice of an angel.  One of the things I was wondering prior to seeing the movie was whether the emotional impact of the music would be felt without someone physically standing in front of you.  On this, I think they succeeded by having the actors sing live.  Also, he has chemistry with love interest Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) and their voices are a lovely match.  Is he too old?  Yes, of course.  However, his on-screen appearance was not aided by the application of so much makeup that it made him look a bit cartoonish.  I think if they had just said, fine, yes, he’s too old but he is the absolute best so go with it, it would have been so much better than a poor attempt to hide it.

There were also some choices made that I’m still trying to understand. What was the point of making Larry his stepfather?  Were they trying to explain why Connor was such a jerk as if kids cannot be jerks with two biological parents at home?  I don’t understand that.  The Alana character was expanded to become an ally, and the Connor and Jared roles felt reduced. I liked the new Alana character (Amandla Stenberg) but both she and Jared (and for that matter ghost Connor) served as foils for Evan and raised the stakes of his lie. Missing that piece reduced the manic frenzy that surrounded Evan leading to the climax of the film and thus, the climax felt a little flat to me.

As for the music, I expected some song deletions/additions but most egregious was “Does Anybody Have a Map.” That song truly sets the tone for both families and I believe the truest song about parenting teenagers ever to have been written.  Without “Good for You” and “Map”, though, “So Big/So Small” just seems like an extra song thrown in without the accompanying character development.  I did love the new “The Anonymous Ones” and “A Little Closer.”

Overall, I would say that it was a good but not great film.  I wonder if it would have been better to have just recorded the play as they did for Hamilton which might have corrected some of the flaws.  Although a good attempt, I’m not sure how many new superfans will be created by this movie.” 

Dear Evan Hansen is rated PG-13 and will be in theaters starting September 24, 2021.

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