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Dear Evan Hansen

*1/2

by Matt Anderson

published September 23, 2021

Dear Evan Hansen, I’m sorry. I know you mean well, but your movie is hard to watch.

#YouWillBeFound

Purely based on this movie adaptation, Dear Evan Hansen is a rather baffling pop culture phenomenon.

It’s the story of a high school senior who suffers from Social Anxiety Disorder. Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, Pitch Perfect) has no friends, he’s painfully awkward and overly apologetic. He apologizes for apologizing so much. Another student, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan, Uncle Frank), also on the fringe and one who has the airs of being a bully, writes in large, all-capital letters CONNOR on Evan’s cast. (Poor Evan fell out of a tree, or at least so the story goes from a character who turns out to be a consummate liar.) Connor goes on to take a self-affirmation letter Evan had printed out and it later is interpreted as Connor’s last words before he dies by suicide.

From there, the story is rather ludicrous — if not in the events, then in the handling of the characters — as weak-kneed Evan caves to the impressions Connor’s parents have that Connor and Evan were the best of friends. Things escalate further as fellow students — who previously dismissed Connor as a bad-tempered punk — rally around his death, even raising funds to refurbish an apple grove that had grown to legendary proportions amid all the social media coverage of Connor’s life posthumously reimagined.

The legend begins on a stage within the stage of the musical: shy Evan, who can hardly hold a one-on-one conversation, steps up to the mic and begins a speech in honor of Connor at his school’s memorial. Of course, Evan gets it all garbled up. Nervous, anxious, he loses his place, drops his notes and then, as he stands, a miracle happens. He begins to sing and express himself in full. Phone cameras pop up, videos flood social media and the wallflower gains a following.

But it all comes crashing down when Evan finally has to confess he was never friends with Connor.

It’s a musical.

It’s life affirming.

Or at least that was the buzz out of New York, where Dear Evan Hansen leaped into the social consciousness in 2016. It won six Tonys, including Best Musical, along with a Grammy and an Olivier.

The movie, though, is more depressing — on a number of levels — than inspiring.

#BeYourself

Maybe it’s unfair to judge the award-winning stage show based on this movie. After all, the movie does take liberties; it shakes up the story a bit, a few new songs are added. But this adaptation, directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), doesn’t leverage all the possibilities the transition from stage to screen has to offer. In that regard, the movie’s cinematic creativity is limited to filming on location. A few scenes with natural light and real trees? Great.

On Broadway, top tickets for the show fetch $399 per seat; nose bleeds and partial views command $42 each. When presented with the possibility of seeing the show in New York a few years ago, it’s the kind of price tag that led this writer — who back in the days of the Young Mattopia Jones Chronicles had seen every musical running on Broadway — to determine the money would best be spent paying the mortgage and putting food on the table.

The irony is there’s dialogue in the show around who has it better, the rich or the poor. But if there are rich people shelling out $399 to wash in the musical magic of lyrics about being anonymous and needing to be found, well, more power to ‘em.

That conversation joins other virtue signaling and social cues — by way of school posters, lyrics, dialogue — with topics including the importance of finding unity in diversity, treatments for anxiety and suicide prevention. It’s an environment in which students openly rattle off and compare the prescription medications in their daily regimen. But, even so, Evan willfully undermines sustainable best practices by printing out that self-affirmation to bring to his therapy session.

He doesn’t email it, but it still gets scanned by others and shared on social media as Evan’s world comes crumbling down.

And as everything crashes around him and the full truth of the incident at the tree that led to Evan’s broken arm is revealed, somehow, somewhere, some way, the fragile wallflower that was Evan Hansen manages to transform and find enough self-respect to be okay with who he is after having deceived everybody around him, regardless of how “good” and innocent his intentions might have been. He’s a sad sack at the beginning and, really, not that much better at the end.

But he’s okay with that and, apparently, that’s the important thing.

#EvanMovieSoOld

This adaptation is bland and drained of energy. The music by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek — including the new songs — is surprisingly lackluster and drab.

Sorry, Evan, but there’s also a lack of authenticity that stems largely from the calculated casting. Ben Platt originated the Evan Hansen role on Broadway. Great. But he’ll turn 28 on Sept. 24, the same day the movie’s released in theaters. Actually, the youngest “high schooler” among the principal characters is Amandla Stenberg and she’s 22. Kaitlyn Dever? 24. Nik Dodani? 27. Colton Ryan? 25.

In fairness, Platt was already 21 when he auditioned for the Broadway role and he was 25 at his final stage performance. Part of the art of acting is to dig into a character and make it come to life, so that certainly also requires the ability to scale up and down the age spectrum.

It’s fine to have a range of ages for performers, particularly when considering roles like the Phantom of the Opera or Jean Valjean; it could be argued, there is an age floor for those roles. But high schoolers aren’t fully “baked” yet, they’re still growing physically and (hopefully) mentally. The gap in life experiences between 17 and 28 is enormous, at least if done right. Making the movie with a more age-appropriate cast could’ve been a beneficial step in the transition from floorboards to screen. At least in theory, the pool of talent appropriate for meeting the rigors of a time-limited movie production schedule should’ve been larger versus the pool contending with the demands of an ongoing and regular live performance.

As an outsider looking in on this phenomenon, the Evan Hansen portrayed here is unsympathetic and insufferable.

By the end of it all, this Dear Evan Hansen is less galvanizing and more frustrating. As the end credits wrap — including a mental illness footnote — it becomes a sad statement on today’s schools and parenting that this material has resonated with and been embraced by so many.