In a year packed to the brim with musicals, Dear Evan Hansen is bound to be the most divisive. The songs are wonderful, the performances are powerful, and its themes concerning mental health mostly ring true. At the same time, the film is about thirty minutes too long, the lead is at least five years too old, and the protagonist’s decisions range from misguided to reprehensible. It’s a film that’ll have you smiling delightfully one minute and cringing with a facepalm the next. In the end, though, does Dear Evan Hansen find redemption?
Ben Platt reprises his Tony-winning role as the titular social misfit with a broken arm and broken self-esteem. His single mother Heidi (Julianne Moore) works non-stop, his only friend Jared (Nik Dodani) is more of a family friend, and his crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) triggers panic attacks. Through a series of convoluted misunderstandings, a letter Evan wrote to himself winds up in the possession of Zoe’s troubled brother Connor (Colton Ryan). When Connor commits suicide, his parents (Amy Adam, Colton Ryan) assume Evan was his only friend based on the note. Although Evan initially tries to explain the situation, he ends up bending the truth to bring the family some comfort and maybe get closer to Zoe. This lie snowballs out of control when classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) starts a student group dedicated to Connor, putting Evan center stage.
Moore is the ensemble’s standout as a woman trying her best to balance work and motherhood, bringing raw humanity to the So Big/So Small number. While there’s talent across the cast, let’s address the Platt in the room. It’s been six years since Platt play Evan on Broadway and almost a decade since he played a college student in Pitch Perfect. At age 27, he’s the most unbelievable teenager in a musical since Grease, and the hairdo doesn’t help. While Platt doesn’t look like a high school senior, his voice is youthful and angelic enough to overcome his appearance. Platt’s body language also makes the audience feel the anxiety crawling around Evan at all times. Would the film have worked better with a younger actor like Tom Holland or an unknown? Probably, but nobody can deny Platt’s commitment.
The play won songwriters Pasek and Paul a Tony to go with their Oscars for La La Land. Having dealt with depression in high school, I can safely say that Dear Evan Hansen’s music hits home. You Will Be Found, in particular, will devastate and inspire you simultaneously. While each song is an earworm, they don’t always work in succession. For example, Sincerely, Me is a humorous, upbeat song uncomfortably sandwiched between Connor’s suicide and Zoe grieving. It’s one of the many moments that triggers both awkward laughter and awkward silence. Whether you go in expecting to love or hate this film, it’s more entertaining with a conflicted audience.
Aside from the confused tone, this musical’s biggest issue boils down to Evan himself. It isn’t long until his lying enters sociopathic territory. As problematic as Evan’s lies are, another character makes a decision later in the film that’s even harder to forgive. Unsurprisingly, director Stephen Chbosky previously wrote the 2005 screen adaptation for Rent. While Chbosky has made some terrific coming-of-age movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder, his musical ventures suffer from the same problems. The dialogue is lacking and the characters are sometimes hard to sympathize with. Sorry, Rent fans, but Angel murders a dog and everyone else should get a day job.
That said, I’ve always had a soft spot for the film version of Rent, despite its serious problems. Does the good in Dear Evan Hansen outweigh the bad, however? If you asked me two hours into the film, I’d likely say no. However, the final act makes a notable change from the source material. It by no means fixes every problem with the film, but it does feel a little closer to the ending that Evan deserves. The music, performances, and bittersweet resolution are just enough to steer this mixed review into a mild recommendation. If you want a high school musical that carries its tune from beginning to end, though, find out why everybody’s talking about Jamie.