Can DEAR EVAN HANDSEN Get Some Love?

Review by Maribeth Thueson, NRFTW Contributor

Dear Evan Hansen won the Tony for best Broadway musical in 2017, but the movie version has come in for more than its share of negative reviews and internet mocking, with particular vitriol aimed at its star, Ben Platt. Is the hatred deserved? In a word, no. I’ll take the haters on, point by point. 

Ben Platt is too old. Yes, he is. Get over it. Virtually every movie or TV show about teenagers has a cast with actors in their late 20s. Platt, who won a Tony for his performance in the Broadway show, really knows this character. Could they have cast one of his replacements? Sure, but maybe one reason they didn’t is because his father is one of the movie’s producers. On the plus side, his performance is preserved for posterity.

Platt’s curly hair and his shirt. Really, this is what bothers you? Platt grew out his hair in an effort to look younger, and the shirt is the same type he wore onstage. Even his shoes were the same. Forget about his hair and look at his performance.

Platt’s performance is all hunched shoulders and tics. Confidence physically reads as erect, head-up, shoulders-back posture. But if you’re not confident, if you’re trying to disappear so people won’t make fun of you or torture you, you’ll hunch your shoulders and keep your head and eyes down. If you’re suffering from extreme anxiety, your hands will take on a life of their own and do things like pick at your shirt and sweat. Platt’s physicality told me immediately who this character is, and I found it realistic.

Platt’s voice. Are you kidding? Platt’s voice is an expressive, supple instrument that hits high notes with confidence and goes from quiet tremulousness to a full-out belt and back again in an instant. He is easily the best singer in the cast, and his voice is a pure pleasure.

The plot is silly, not to mention creepy. Well, you’ve got me there. Evan writes a letter to himself on the advice of his therapist, and disturbed student Connor (Colton Ryan) steals the letter from the copier. When Connor commits suicide with the note in his pocket, his parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) believe that Evan must have been Connor’s only friend, and desperate for any shred of positive news about their son, pressure Evan to tell them something good about Connor. Evan tries to tell them the truth, but when he sees how much it means to them, he  goes along with their fantasy. Eventually he compounds the lie by writing a series of fake emails supposedly between himself and Connor, and that lie begets another and another until he is trapped in a web he can’t see a way out of. The letter is a pretty thin plot device, but since it sets in motion a story that illuminates Evan’s character and the choices he makes, I’ll go with it.

Evan Hansen is a monster. Evan Hansen is suffering from mental illness – anxiety, depression, and isolation –  and that illness influences him to make bad choices. His mother (Julianne Moore), while caring and supportive, is also working extra shifts as a nurse and is rarely around. Evan wants to keep his initial lie a secret, to have a family that dotes on him like Connor’s comes to, and to be able to talk with the girl he’s got a crush on, Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). And a big part of the reason he lies and keeps lying is to provide comfort to Connor’s parents. He just doesn’t realize the anguish that his lie will cause Connor’s family, his own mother, his classmates, and himself. So no, Evan isn’t a monster who tries to hurt people on purpose. He’s a kid who’s broken.

The songs are pop songs. Well, sure, why not? Broadway can encompass all types of music. The songs are effective in telling the story and in revealing character, so they do their job. And I’ve had “You Will Be Found” in my head ever since I saw the movie.

They cut some songs from the Broadway show.  Yes, they did, and I can’t tell you how that affects the movie because I haven’t seen the stage show. But the songwriters also wrote a new number, “The Anonymous Ones,” sung by Amandla Stendberg, who plays student activist Alana. She seems to have it together, speaking in assemblies and urging classmates to join causes, but underneath, she’s having mental health issues, too, and of all Evan’s classmates, she’s the one who most understands what he’s going through. “The Anonymous Ones” is a terrific addition, and reminds us that there are differing levels of mental illness, and that you can be high-functioning and still not be okay. And who among us hasn’t been not okay at one time or another?

They cut two of Evan’s mother’s songs, making her less of a presence. And possibly because Julianne Moore isn’t a singer. But she can carry a tune, and she acts the hell out of “So Big/So Small,” in which she comforts Evan after he’s confessed the truth.

Movie musicals are stupid. Who could believe people just breaking out into song? If you think this, there is no hope for you. People ought to break out in song regularly and often, and I know several people who do. If you can believe superheroes, dragons, space aliens, and gigantic machines that are not only alive but also transform into cars, you can believe people singing.

Evan isn’t punished. The movie is light on consequences, but it tacks on an ending in which Evan tries to make up for the harm he’s caused, which the stage show apparently didn’t have. At least they tried. Ironically, the lies aren’t all Evan’s. The movie itself lies. The anthem “You Will Be Found” is a bromide that just isn’t true. Not everyone is found, seen, supported, or saved. And Evan’s mother tells him, “One day you’ll look back on this and it will all seem far away.” No, it won’t. Evan might heal, but this incident is going to affect him for the rest of his life.

Dear Evan Hansen is just one big emotional manipulation, and it doesn’t take teen suicide or mental illness seriously. I won’t deny it, you’ll need your hankie. I started sobbing halfway through, and I heard plenty of other people sniffling, too. If you’re not comfortable with heavy emotion (like some audience members who giggled at inappropriate moments), don’t see it. And one show shouldn’t bear the whole burden of educating people about teen suicide and mental illness. But Dear Evan Hansen can give you some insight into what someone like Evan goes through on a daily basis. 

You saw people like Evan Hansen in school. Maybe you were one, or maybe you were one of the “anonymous ones.” If you were, if you have a shred of empathy,or if you like musicals, give Dear Evan Hansen a try. You may find that the haters are wrong. And if you like the movie despite its flaws, like I did, spread the word and give Dear Evan Hansen some love.

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