In many ways, Dear Evan Hansen is “better than Cats”, mainly because Evan isn’t physically painful to look at—I don’t want to pluck out my eyeballs and run screaming into the sea—and because the musical is not sung through. But in all the ways that count, Dear Evan Hansen is PSYCHOTIC. I watched this film slack-jawed and wide-eyed, unable to believe such folly was willingly committed to film, to be preserved for all time. It made me question the thousands of people who paid to see this show on Broadway in the mid-2010s and the voters of the six Tonys that it won in 2017—this was a real “am I taking crazy pills” moment. Dear Evan Hansen comes from the songwriting duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote most of the lyrics for La La Land, a musical I enjoy, but they also wrote the lyrics for The Greatest Showman, a musical that is as misguided as Evan. I’m starting to think the reason I don’t like musicals is that there aren’t that many good musicals.
Ben Platt, twenty-seven, stars as Evan Hansen, a high schooler with anxiety and depression. Much has been made of Platt’s obviously-too-old casting, and yes, he is distractingly Not Young on screen. But he played a teen in The Politican just a couple years ago and didn’t stick out like a sore thumb on that show. What gives? It comes down to realism. The Politician is unapologetic soap, and so, like Riverdale and 90210 before it, the relative ages of the cast doesn’t really matter. But Evan is directed by Steven Chbosky, who brings the story down to an intimate, realist level. Chbosky has previously succeeded within the emotional high school milieu with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but his realist instinct and Evan’s fantastical premise fight each other from jump. Stranded in what is supposed to be a tangibly real emotional environment, Platt cannot make his performance—for which he won a Tony on Broadway—work. He is out of place, and worse, his wrongness in the role only highlights Evan’s monstrousness in turn.
Because dear lady of darkness, Evan is a DEMON. As I understand it, the musical theater community has been debating the ethics of Evan since it opened off-Broadway, but bringing the story to film compounds the problem until no amount of anthemic belting about acceptance can paper over its central ugliness. When it comes to suspension of disbelief, the audience buy in for a stage musical is very high, not only do we buy into a world where people dance and burst into song to express emotion, but we often buy into absurd premises like singing cats and disappearing towns. But film’s buy in is much lower, as film is a much more realist medium, comparatively, to theater, especially musical theater. On film, Evan plays out in a real high school, in real homes, in practical suburban locations with which we are all familiar, at least by sight. This isn’t just a realistic world, it’s a believable world, which makes Evan’s actions that much more reprehensible, because there is nowhere to hide, no fantasy cover to shield Evan from the practicality of existence.
Evan hinges on a case of mistaken identity, in which the grieving family of Connor (Colton Ryan), a classmate who died by suicide, believes Evan to be Connor’s only friend. At first, it is clear Evan goes along with the mistake because his social anxiety paralyzes him in the moment, rendering him unable to contradict Connor’s obviously grief-stricken mother (Amy Adams). But later he actively participates in the delusion, creating fake emails as evidence of his fake friendship, and his own social status at school, which was previously nonexistent, begins to rise as people know him as “the dead kid’s friend”. Even worse still, Evan begins a relationship with Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), under these same false pretenses. Of course, the whole thing eventually blows up in Evan’s face, and a teary soliloquy-song to camera is meant to absolve Evan of his heinous deception because he meant well. Bullsh-t! Platt plays Evan riddled with so much guilt it is clear Evan knows what he is doing is wrong, but he does it anyway, and there is no amount of cry-singing that can make this deeply troubling premise forgivable. Yes, the world could use more compassion and understanding, and yes, we should all be a little kinder, to ourselves and each other, but this is NOT the way to communicate that to an audience!
I haven’t gotten to the part where Evan insinuates that love is conditional on controlling your mental illness so as not to inconvenience anyone else with it, or how the film doesn’t want to wrangle with Connor’s obvious emotional abuse of his family, particularly his sister. At times, it seems the story should be focused on Zoe, who is grieving but also furious about being expected to just forget all the hell her brother, who is implied to be an addict, put her through. Zoe’s situation seems a much better vehicle for exploring compassion and forgiveness in the wake of not only personal tragedy, but also complicated relationships with people who treat us badly. Instead, we’re stuck with Evan, a sociopath who preys on a grieving family in their worst moments in order to finally have friends. You know what? Give me the singing cats. At least they don’t take advantage of the bereaved.
Dear Evan Hansen is in theaters from September 24.