Despite the fact that it’s a narrative known to the many that witnessed its theatre run since 2015, when the synopsis was revealed for the filmic adaptation of Steven Levenson‘s Dear Evan Hansen there was considerable shock and near-instant backlash. The notion of an emotionally disturbed teenager’s ultimate suicide being used as a plotting hook so a fellow student can gain the friendship and attention he never really had isn’t one that inspires the feel-good temperament the film seemed to be advertising. It’s an entirely fair judgement to be appalled at such an action, but, to be fair to Stephen Chbosky‘s film – working off Levenson’s own screenplay – it’s not that black-and-white either.
The titular Evan Hansen, played by Ben Platt (reprising his role from the stage, he too earning his own ire from the masses with his casting, due to the fact that his father is a producer on the film and that he very much doesn’t look like a 17-year-old), suffers from social anxiety and, at the behest of his therapist, writes letters to himself to remind himself why “today will be a good day”. It’s an incredibly sad existence, further cemented by how in his latest letter he ponders if anyone would notice if he simply disappeared, and it’s these dark themes of isolation and suicidal tendencies that the film seems to go to great lengths to not entirely address, instead hoping the musical sequences will relay the hopefulness it wants to project.
Evan’s latest letter happens to be read by school outcast Connor (Colton Ryan), largely avoided by all due to his unstable personality, who misunderstands the intent behind Evan’s writings and believes the mention of his sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who happens to be Evan’s crush, was done so in order to provoke him. Committing suicide with only a “Dear Evan Hansen” note on his person, Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), are under the assumption it was Connor who wrote the letter and that he and Evan shared such a close friendship that they wrote to each other on a regular basis. His own anxiety weighing heavy on his actions and unwilling to break the hearts of his family further, Evan goes along with the idea that he and Connor were the best of friends.
Though it’s easy for us to be angry at Evan’s decision to essentially gaslight Connor’s parents, it’s one we understand. Evan tries to tell Cynthia and Larry that Connor didn’t write the letter, but so desperate to understand their son, particularly Cynthia, they won’t hear any of Evan’s rumblings. It’s really quite sad, and one of the film’s more engaging ideas, that Cynthia, Larry, and even Zoe will cling to Evan’s every word when it comes to “detailing” Connor. He’s someone they didn’t know and, now tragically, never will. Everything they learn about their son is a lie.
And that is probably Dear Evan Hansen‘s biggest sin. Personally, I think the film handles Evan’s lie and ultimate road to redemption quite well, especially in that he isn’t let off the hook as easily as he could’ve been, and I can overlook Platt’s appearance. It’s more that no matter how many song-and-dance numbers we get, Connor’s being is one we never truly know. Evan Hansen, ironically, is the wrong protagonist.
And yet, as off-putting as it is for Evan and his cohort Jared (Nik Dodani) to fabricate an entire relationship with Connor – though this sequence (“Sincerely Me”) is one of the film’s more upbeat moments – we sympathise with Evan as an outcast in a delicate situation that escalated far beyond his control. There’s no malice in his actions. As someone who felt like he couldn’t connect with anyone around him – even feeling distant from his own mother (Julianne Moore), despite her constant encouragement – the love and support he receives from Connor’s family is understandably intoxicating. As much as the detractors would have you believe, Evan Hansen is not the villain of this story.
Even if we don’t agree with his choices, the underlying innocence of Evan, assisted by Platt’s invested performance, helps the film through its murky messaging of staying true to yourself. Dear Evan Hansen may not always get everything right, but it’s far from getting everything wrong too.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Dear Evan Hansen is screening in Australian theatres from December 9th, 2021.