A film review by Craig J. Koban December 16, 2021



2021, PG-13, 131 mins.

Ben Platt as Evan Hansen  /  Amy Adams as Cynthia Murphy  /  Kaitlyn Dever as Zoe Murphy  /  Julianne Moore as Heidi Hansen  /  Amandla Stenberg as Alana Beck  /  Nik Dodani as Jared Kleinman  /  Colton Ryan as Connor Murphy

Directed by Stephen Chbosky  /  Written by Steven Levenson, based on his musical stage play with book

I fully believe that the makers behind the new musical drama DEAR EVAN HANSEN had nothing but the most noble hearted of intentions.  

The film is, after all, based on the musical of the same name that won six Tony Awards and is directed by Stephen Chbosky, whom previously made one of the best youth oriented films of recent memory in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.  

Having said all of that, within the first few minutes of DEAR EVAN HANSEN I just knew that something was just really, really off about this film.  And of all of the films that I've seen in 2021 - and I've seen many - this just might be the most cringe inducing, cheaply manipulative, and thoroughly insufferable to sit through.  It ultimately pains me to say this, seeing as I typically love the musical genre and most of what it offers.  DEAR EVAN HANSEN is not only tone deaf, but it fails at striking any meaningful chord; I felt weak and numb after watching it. 

The stage musical has a rather loyal and passionate fanbase.  I get that.  It dominated Broadway and went on to become a Tony Awards darling.  I also get that.  But I simply didn't get this film.  At All.  Period.  DEAR EVAN HANSEN is so bloody wrongheaded in some many unfathomable ways that even taking notes during my screening wasn't enough to chart and navigate them all.  Ultimately, the film is undone and undermined by three main variables: (1) The woeful miscasting of the lead (more on that in a bit), (2) the story and themes here never really cry out for musical treatment and (3) the themes contained within (chronicling everything from teen depression, suicide, processing  trauma after tragedy, and dealing with mental health issues)  are so pathetically dealt with here as a result of the sitcom level contrivances of the overall story arc.  I think there is a story to be told, for sure, that deals with a downtrodden teen that has to come face to face with his intense levels of social anxiety and depression by finding unique outlets to combat it, but DEAR EVAN HANSEN is never once up to the task of exploring them thoughtfully and sensitively.  

Some people may be moved by this film.  I was move to run to the toilet and vomit for how difficult it was to sit through. 

The titular main character in Evan (Ben Platt) is a hopelessly and chronically shy and introverted teen dealing with a multitude of health issues, mental and physical.  His overworked single mother in Heidi (Julianne Moore) tries as she can to make life better for her troubled son, but simply is not home enough to make a sizeable impact.  Evan also tries desperately to connect with schoolmates and make friends, but every attempt is an embarrassing failure.  While going through therapy, Evan is given an innovative assignment to deal with life's challenges: He's to write letters to himself daily to spur on some much needed positive energy.  He takes to it, but on one fateful day he's bullied by Connor (Colton Ryan) and has his letter taken out of his hands against his will.  Feeling like the world is imploding on him, Evan tries to pick himself up from his heated encounter, but his whole world gets thrown a larger curveball when it's shockingly revealed that Connor was struggling with intense depression...and killed himself.  Worse yet is that the dead kid's parents in Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) found Evan's Dear Evan Hanson self-help therapy letter and believes that Connor wrote it as a suicidal note for help...and falsely think that Connor and Evan were secretly BFFs. 

Now, Evan has a simple choice here when confronted by these grieving parents: He can just tell them that he wrote the letter.  

Easy, right?  




Evan decides that it would be best to play around and concoct a friendship with the deceased Connor out of thin air, thinking that it'll make his parents find inner peace. 


It gets worse.  

Way...way worse.  

As Evan constructs layer upon layer of lies and social falsehoods (even going out of his way to fabricate phony emails between himself and Connor), it becomes clear that his whole deception is gaining massive word of mouth and publicity in the school and town, and all while he's getting close to Connor's sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who he's been secretly pining over well before Connor's demise (yeah...awkward!).  Things begin to drastically snowball for Evan when an anti-suicide group run by a fellow classmate (Amandla Stenberg) begs Evan to speak at Connor's memorial service, seeing as she and everyone else believes that Evan was his closest mate.  Predictably, when Evan gives his speech it becomes the talk of the social media world and brings in even more attention from outside of this town.  He's faced with a daunting challenge: Tell the world that he's a total fake and face the repercussions (including losing the girl that he loves) or continuing to sell his deception. 

I have never seen a teen centric high school drama so horribly cynical and borderline creepy.  DEAR EVAN HANSON really wants to ring tears out of our eyes, but instead of doing so naturally and organically it's almost as if the makers held out and peeled onions right in front of the eyes of filmgoers to generate the same weepy eyed response.  I wasn't having any of it.  This movie wants me to like and sympathize with Evan (he is, after all, dealing with cruel mental health issues even before Connor's suicide), but this guy is lies falsehoods against this poor family, all of which involve him getting cozy and intimate with them...including the girl he's crushing on big time.  Yikes.  When he's not ingratiating himself to these strangers and making them appreciate him, Evan becomes (God help me) a viral sensational spokesperson for mental health and suicide prevention.  And in doing all of this he's showing not one ounce of sympathy or understanding for these parents or their daughter and what they must be going through.  How could he?!  Evan has so deeply distorted the truth that he just can't escape from it.  This character doesn't deserve our understanding (especially when the film reaches the unavoidable scene when he finally tells the truth to all).  He deserves to be in a straightjacket.   

Now, seriously, Evan doesn't commit his heinous acts to become famous, to be sure, but he certainly does so in an unhealthily self serving fashion to be liked and liked by many.  I think that Chbosky wants us to feel like he's the victim when his social crimes come to the forefront because...well...he's a troubled young man.   Yup.  Sure.  Un huh.  You betcha.  I want to feel pity for him, but he's such a deceptive lout here.  The scripting, granted, doesn't do this thorny character any good whatsoever because it doesn't have anything of tangible substance to say about its themes.  It's all beyond superficial, and the film thinks it's being tactful and respectful of these pressure cooker issues that affect so many young people today, but - when it boils right down to it - Connor's suicide just comes out of left field and is a manufactured plot device that lazily propels the narrative (and Evan's deception) forward.  If there's a modest message to be had in DEAR EVAN HANSEN then it would be don't lie about being a buddy to a sad teen that killed himself.  As for the story exploring the minutia of teen suicide, cyber bullying, and (later on as an added kick to the baby makers) poverty/class shaming, this film is severely out of its league. 

Within seconds of seeing Platt on screen and seeing him belt out this musical's first tune it became clear how laughably and inappropriately he was cast here.  That's a double edged sword statement, because the stage role did originate with the actor to vast rave reviews and a bounty of awards, but he's 28 years old...and he looks even older than that on film (not a shot at his physical looks, but rather for his maturity) playing a part of a 17-18 year old.  I could not buy him as a high school student here.  I found it impossible.  All throughout DEAR EVAN HANSEN I was consciously aware that an adult pushing thirty was trying to pass as an adolescent.  And yes, many, many films of the past are guilty as charged for having old actors play young (especially in high school films) and Platt's co-star in Dever is just two years younger.  But here's the thing: Dever looks thoroughly credible as a teen, whereas Platt does not.  When the movie has scenes of intimacy between them it comes off as icky instead of sweet and touching.  In Platt's defense, though, his vocal talents are indeed immense (I can see why his work was so well respected on stage), and he carries the film's songs resoundingly well, but his casting pathetically tanks the good will of the music.  When you don't buy the casting of the lead then you can't buy anything else built around him. 

One last thing before I close this review and put this film out of my mind for good (at least until I pen my Worst Films of 2021 list in a few weeks, mind you): I don't think that the ideas at play in this film lend themselves well to upbeat and whimsical musical numbers.  If anything, every time Platt and his co-stars break out into song and dance it's distracting as opposed to complimenting the story.  That's a shame, because some of the supporting players here (like Dever in a few key scenes of morning and Julianne Moore in her respective scenes as her beleaguered mother staving off debt while trying to keep her tight two-person family unit afloat) bring thankless levels of depth to a film that has virtually none.  DEAR EVAN HANSEN is a shameless would-be tearjerker and as close to being as offensively awful as any film - musical or not - that I've seen this year, but perhaps unintentionally so.  Again, I don't believe Chbosky and company had any idea how baffling off-putting their film was while making it, which makes DEAR EVAN HANSEN all the more of a difficult slog to sit through.  And at a punishing 131 minute runtime that's not earned, witnessing Evan's manner of dealing with trauma by concocting hurtful lies that eventually affect countless other peoples' lives is about 131 minutes too much for me to tolerate.   

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