Dear Evan Hansen,
We need to talk about your film. My main concern is where to begin, there isn’t so much an elephant in the room, it’s more like we’re standing in the middle of the world’s busiest elephant sanctuary. However, we need to start somewhere; so, let’s start with the elephant called Ben Platt.
Well, Evan, let’s just say Jared Leto must be pleased your film came out; it’s the only thing standing between him and the Razzie for Worst Performance of The Year. Yes, Ben Platt clearly being an adult while playing a high schooler is the most obvious issue here. Platt has the role because he was the star of the stage show, originating the role at a younger age. He also probably has the role because because his father is a producer. The visible age difference is a problem, a huge one. While some reviewers have cited precedent as a defence, Hollywood’s long history of casting adults as teens, they seem to be forgetting multiple wrongs don’t make a right. These historical casting decisions were also bizarre, and sometimes, deeply suspect. It, perhaps, stings even more in Dear Evan Hansen because the rest of the young cast are visibly younger, even if they are still not the ages of their characters.
To return to Platt, Evan, in portraying you he is actually made to look younger (the filmmaker’s clearly aware that the age gap is a problem). He is heavily made up to the extent he looks like an alien. He has a Zuckerbergian quality that is truly uncanny. It is truly disturbing when one of the characters looks like an alien wearing a human’s skin as a disguise and everybody else is living as normal. Now, maybe this would be excusable if Platt felt necessary in the role but, Evan, he’s terrible. Platt is stuck in the stage performance, delivering a caricatured take large enough to be seen from the back of the theatre in a film where the camera is right up in his face (all the time). His performance is at odds with everybody else in the film, he is giving a cartoonish impression of a person and everybody else is just doing naturalistic film acting.
Now, Evan, Ben Platt has to do a lot of emotional heavy lifting here. The film is trying to be weepy and Platt is the emotional core. This means that every attempt at pathos falls flat, or seems like a mockery of itself. This is further complicated by Platt presenting a character that is supposed to be a representation of somebody struggling with their mental health (later, we specifically learn that Evan has anxiety and depression). The framing make his cartoonish performance deeply distasteful.
That’s enough time with that elephant. There are so many more to go through, Evan, and so little time. Now, let’s move on to the elephant that is the entire narrative of the film. You see, Evan, when I first saw a trailer for your film, I couldn’t believe the advertised narrative was actually the narrative of a film. And, well, now I’ve seen it, Evan, I have to say it was even worse than I imagined. But, let me remind you of what happens. You see, you are told to write letters to yourself, letters like this one. It’s a therapy technique, a way of getting you to externalise more and to deal with your emotions (I have to say, I am finding it cathartic). Due to a sequence of contrivances, your letter ends up in the hands of a student named Connor. In it, you mention how you have a crush on his sister. He doesn’t take kindly to this, storming out of the library, but not before signing your cast (I probably should have mentioned that you start the film with a broken arm). Tragically, Conor dies by suicide the next day. His parents find the letter to ‘Evan Hansen’ in his possession and link it to the name ‘Connor’ written on your cast. Conflating the two, they believe the note to be a suicide note that proves Evan Hansen was Connor’s only friend.
Now begins the arc of the film where we realise you, Evan, are a sociopath. Truly, Dear Evan Hansen is a horror film presented from the villain’s point of view, in which all is presented like nothing is wrong. Many have made connections to 2019’s Joker, Dear Evan Hansen is perhaps better understood as a new take on The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) or a musical of Pasolini’s Teorema (1968). You, Evan, similarly invade a family like a cuckoo in a nest and manipulate them, further tricking one of them into entering a relationship with you (a relationship in which she could never give any informed consent). It is disturbing and your film, Evan, shows no interest in dealing with this. The eventual story deals with the positive effects of your continued gaslighting, Evan, presenting a bizarre tone where your film is never sure of what it wants to say. There are so many scenes that should be critical or satirical, but they are presented as uplifting. The fault comes from the direction, which is uniformly bad. In fact, bring the directing elephant over here, let’s deal with it.
Dear Evan Hansen is a musical is adapted from the stage musical of the same name, and for me, sorry Evan, the songs aren’t very good. Mileage will vary but they all feel completely generic and deeply homogenous. The lyricism is poor, full of blunt and clunky lines that elicit frequent groans. The realisation of the film as a musical is also a problem. Dear Evan Hansen feels embarrassed of its musical status, breaking into song in an awkward fashion and never indulging in the language of the musical genre. There’s no flair to these sequences and the direction is flat and uninspired. The staging is almost always just one character singing randomly while the world around them doesn’t get infected with the musicality, and the results of this are really off-putting. When there is some wider staging (which happens a couple of times) it is awkwardly implemented. The musical element just gets in the way and adds nothing to the film, purely because of direction. The direction throughout is uninteresting, and lacking in any kind of personality, never bringing anything of note out of the material. The film just exists on screens.
Anyway, Evan, let’s get back to your story. Let’s deal with the largest elephant: the message of this movie. What is the message? Well, the film is not sure. We follow an arc of a character completely manipulating a family and causing real harm, but these moments are persistently shown as being enriching for others. The problem is not the lie itself, the problem is getting caught. The plot does go where it needs to go, eventually, but it has no interest in actually dealing with the serious implications. At every point, Evan, the film frames you as sympathetic, sometimes going out of its way to produce more reasons for the audience to pit you. You can never be the villain even when you cause such harm. This skews the messaging awfully, but it also speaks to how abysmal and immoral the plotting is. It is a story about a suicide in which the person who dies by suicide is relegated to a MacGuffin. They are simply a plot device, and they have no voice or perspective within the narrative. Their use is so crude and upsetting, and so thoughtless. But it is keeping with the narrative style. This is a film full of contrivances and forced details that turn serious issues into easy answers.
I would love the film that this could have been, Evan, the film it seems to think it is. A film about mental health and the need to have honest conversations about it; a film about how the language and narrative around mental health can be skewed and manipulated. But, Evan, the film just isn’t that. The film’s story is so forced, so oddly positioned, and performed with such falsity, that all it does is contribute to the continued misunderstanding of important topics. Your film is a real problem, Evan. It is an exploitative work that dilutes reality in a harmful way. The overwrought narrative approaches so many important areas but does a disservice to all of them. Honestly, it’s actually impressive how much the film actually gets wrong.
I guess that’s all I have to say. I could comment further on the complete misunderstanding of teenage life (and the strange fascination with email) but, at this point, I am just being cruel. We’ll leave the cruelty to you, Evan. I think you’ve got enough to reflect on.