Dear Evan Hansen (Review): You Will Be Found Wanting

Dear Joe Morin, my feelings on Dear Evan Hansen are so conflicted I’ve decided to write a letter to myself to make sense of them. Normal people might call that a “review.” Get on with it. Sincerely, me.  

Dear Evan Hansen has one of the most messed up premises I’ve ever seen… Protagonist Evan (Ben Platt) is a teenage boy suffering from extreme social anxiety and a broken wrist. His therapist suggests he writes positive letters to himself, looking for the bright side in each day. Evan writes a depressing letter instead– one which might be mistaken for a suicide note.

Later at school, a classmate– who happens to be the brother of Evan’s crush– steals the letter, brings it home and kills himself. A series of misunderstandings leads the boy’s parents to believe that Evan is the kid’s best friend. Evan’s fear of confrontation stops him from setting the record straight. This grieving family slowly absorbs Evan into their sphere as he bonds with them over their son’s death. How, you might ask? Thing is: the son (Connor– Colton Ryan) was a closed off person whom nobody knew very well. So Evan makes up fake stories about their relationship to maintain his ruse and avoid any awkwardness.

It’s at this point you’re either engrossed in the story or you’re disgusted and hate DEH for the rest of its run-time. Because Evan Hansen is a tough character to root for. He goes to disturbing lengths with his lies and does so with little remorse. All the worse is that his motivations appear self-serving: bonding with his crush/ being part of the stable family he never had seems more of a priority than helping a family in pain. And that might not be so bad if the movie treated Evan like he was doing something wrong. But the whole thing is pretty nonchalant.

NOTE: Oh yeah. Did I forget to mention this was a musical? We’ll get to that.

Normally I like complexity but this plot hurts my brain… We’re supposed to cheer for this guy doing something we all know is messed up, and that’s basically the whole movie. It was certainly an experience, but one which left me more conflicted than gratified. Maybe that’s a just a personal hangup. How am I to know how it’ll affect you? It’s gotta drop my opinion of the film though. That said– the plot is WAY better if you view Evan Hansen as the film’s villain, terrorizing this poor family. There’s my Barney Stinson-level take of the day…

The note which kicks this whole plot into motion

As much as the premise made me uncomfortable, I was largely entertained by the story. It’s cringey in a good way (mostly– if you’re in to that kind of entertainment). Here’s two little known facts about me: I suffer extreme second-hand embarrassment and I hold tension in my jaw. My mouth was clenched for basically the whole run-time. I was pretty freaking sore by the credits. That’s not a judgement on the film’s quality, but it does mean I emotionally invested enough to hurt myself.

I wasn’t hooked by the beginning, and my investment waned in and out during the middle, but I was fully engaged by the end! Still that mid-section was, at times, challenging to get through because the pacing was abysmal! I mean, the plot was fine but dragged on forever. DEH feels like a sitcom episode A-plot stretched into a two hour film…

Alright, let’s say a few more nice things: the film doesn’t pull its emotional punches. If you check your cynicism at the door and let yourself care for at least some of these characters, you may get swept up. Some moments cracked through my cold exterior and genuinely made me sad…

One of the most fascinating aspects of the movie to me is how Connor’s family reacts to his death. His mother Cynthia (Amy Adams) is deeply upset, as you’d expect, but the father and daughter suppress their emotions. The problem: Connor was a rude and abusive person, and he brought a lot of pain into their lives. The fact that Connor’s family was allowed to grieve differently from one another gave the plot nuance. The deceased are so often deified, I find it refreshing for characters to say how they really feel.

Onto the music now. I… wasn’t a fan. Maybe my expectations were set too high when the marketing declared DEH’s songs were written by Pasek and Paul (the duo who wrote songs for La La Land and The Greatest Showman– both of which I greatly enjoyed). Most of DEH’s songs start the same way: with a shy, quiet opening leading to a grand, epic closer. The style was cool the first few times, but overused. And I wish there were more upbeat songs in this thing. “Sincerely, Me” was the only song I had fun with the entire movie! Not that the others lacked merit, but all these slow-paced pathos-heavy songs blurred together after a while.

Dear Evan Hansen is abnormally subdued for a musical. I have mixed feelings on that… Sometimes it feels raw and bold to have no dance sequences. Other times I miss the flash and other-worldliness I associate with the musical genre. Actually, I missed the flair more than I didn’t. I respect the choice to attempt a more grounded musical but I don’t think it pleases anyone: people who hate musicals will be annoyed by the singing no matter what, and fans of musicals won’t like DEH’s lack of style. 

This whole song is just Ben Platt and Julianne Moore sitting on the couch

Not much to say on the acting but here’s a few thoughts: Ben Platt was great (reprising his role from the stage show)! There’s been some controversy regarding his age for the part. Frankly, I neither noticed or cared. Don’t listen to the whining and make up your own mind. Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Danny Pino were solid too. Everyone else was ranged from passable to OK.

Most stories have some kinda take-away, right? But I struggled to figure out what DEH was really about. There seemed to be a few angles, but here’s the best guess I’ve got: Sometimes mental illness is all we see in people, choosing to ignore their complexities in lieu of easy categorization; And sometimes we don’t notice people’s struggles at all. People are more than their illnesses, for better and worse. And getting to know a someone is infinitely more rewarding than throwing them in neatly-crafted a box and passing judgement. But that could also be completely wrong because most of the bits about “discovering” people behind their illnesses are based on lies…

Speaking of lies, Dear Evan Hansen also seems to question whether or not lying is OK if more good may be achieved than with truth. However, the film is wishy-washy on its stance with the issue. Nobody likes that Evan manipulated the Murphy family, but anyone who finds out treats his actions with mild disapproval rather than disgust. And there’s an argument to be made that the Murphy’s are better off with the lie: they get to remember their family member as a better man than he was in reality. Now don’t agree with that, but it’s a valid angle.

Coming out of the theater I felt Dear Evan Hansen was pretty darn good but the story sat worse the more I pondered it. What was the point? What was this actually about? It was played as a coming of age story, but any character progress Evan made was through lying and manipulation. It’s the most twisted way to do a coming-of-age I’ve ever seen…

Dear Evan Hansen wasn’t technically good, and I don’t think I’d ever watch it again, but it still resonated with me– so I generously declare it Worth a watch (for the chance its good moments will hit you too).

Got any good musical recommendations for me (film or live theatre)? What did you think of Dear Evan Hansen? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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