Dear Evan Hansen (2021)

“Now we can both pretend we have friends.”

Dear Evan Hansen is a novel concept…I think. It’s a musical about a loner who makes song out of situations when he probably shouldn’t, who only feels heard in those expressive fits bursting from isolation, and whose own deficiencies hold him back from being all that likeable. The title character is a deeply flawed, hamstrung, inert ball of emotion, and it affects the picture for better and sometimes for worse. But for all of its flaws – and there are plenty – I felt Dear Evan Hansen on a deep level. It empathizes with those compelled to speak false truths yet who don’t have the gumption to be honest until things have gone sideways. It’s clunky, but it understands the title character’s hurt. That’s so important.

Let me just say right off the bat that Ben Platt’s actual age mixed with some odd makeup did not keep me from believing he was a severely lonely high school student named Evan Hansen. If you can believe the 30’s looking folks in Grease were horny teenagers, then surely you can suspend belief and buy into this fidgety and frail looking version of a young man. But best of all, he’s the villain of his own proclamatory story, spinning webs and carefully ladling lie upon lie. Evan Hansen isn’t a despicable character; he just has a longer and harder road to salvation than most protagonists. I appreciate that the film doesn’t avoid the speed bumps, and that we feel like we’re riding along the wheel wells on the bus ride to and from home. There’s no smooth sailing here.

The only reason he’s able to get away with as much as he does is because Evan is so unassuming, so bound to the backdrop of his preppy high school’s peppy and showy forwardness. A little moment with the isolated and eventually suicidal Connor (Colton Ryan) gets spun completely out of proportion, leading Evan to happily befriend the late Connor’s sister and his longtime crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), as well as to offer comfort to Connor’s polar opposite parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino). Dear Evan Hansen makes the moments feel real even if they’re usually dramatically forced, and while the musical numbers are never the kind you’ll be singing in your car or humming at work, they act as an outlet for Evan to communicate how he’s feeling and how he hopes others can feel as well. Yeah, it’s manipulative, but the intentions are mostly good.

There’s an earnestness to Dear Evan Hansen and the direction from the incredibly capable Stephen Chbosky that rings true, even though it’s vastly inferior to his work on The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder. The script never really develops the characters played by Julianne Moore as Evan’s mom or Amandla Stenberg as an advocate student, and while some of the rapid editing is meant to be an insight into Evan’s overthinking mind, the cuts can become all too disorienting for their actual purpose. Dear Evan Hansen struggles to find the right tone and the breakthrough song to make its message memorable, yet it remains true that this is a story about healing by any means necessary. After all, Evan wears a cast for a reason, and he does his best to help mend the memories of those along the way, even if it’s all peppered with plenty of deceit while looking for signatures. This one isn’t very pretty, but it assures us that things can and will get better. It just takes honesty, forgiveness, and in this case a little bit too much time to finally get there.

“I didn’t know that you were hurting.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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