Often when I share about my passion for musical movies, people tell me the reason they don’t share that passion is because they find musicals old-fashioned and non-relatable. Next time when they give this response, I will query, “Have you seen Dear Evan Hansen?”
If you want something modern and relatable, then look no further than Dear Evan Hansen. Set in a modern-day High School the film follows Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) a student who is battling severe mental illness to the point where he struggles to even talk to people, let alone trying to make friends and settle into a regular high school routine. Instead, Evan spends most of his days trying to avoid social interactions while watching his crush, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) from afar. However, things take a big turn when Zoe’s brother, Connor (Colton Ryan) commits suicide. His grieving parents, Larry (Danny Pino) and Cynthia (Amy Adams), find a letter on his body addressed to Evan, but as they start grilling him for information about their son, Evan finds that he is unable to tell them the truth – that the letter was one of his ‘therapy’ letters that he wrote himself that Connor stole from him.
What impressed me about Dear Evan Hansen is that while it sticks true to its musical roots, it has a deep story that takes audiences into an event where it’s obvious there isn’t going to be a winner. I believe that many usually see a film in the musical genre and just assume that it is going to be ‘light and fluffy’. But not all musicals are light-hearted and delightful, and that certainly isn’t the case with Dear Evan Hansen. In no way can this film ever be accused of making light of serious subjects, such as suicide and mental illness.
Based on a Tony Award winning musical, Dear Evan Hansen is a film that engrosses its audience in a way that will divide people. From my perspective, I could see why Evan went the path he chose after the letter was discovered. I knew that it would be a murky path filled with danger for him, but I understood his actions. However, I can also see why others would almost hate Evan for what he does. I mean, let’s face it, he is basically blatantly lying and catfishing a dead teenager’s family.
Director Stephen Chbosky and screenwriter Steven Levenson don’t try to protect Evan as a character. I’m sure at some point in the production, someone would have pointed out that the character and his actions might be viewed is apprehensible and maybe perhaps something should be done to make him a ‘hero.’ But that doesn’t happen, and I believe that this is what makes Dear Evan Hansen so powerful. The suspense and anticipation of knowing the truth while everything unravels on-screen is what makes Dear Evan Hansen so fascinating to watch.
Musically, the film also works. Admittedly, I’ve not seen the original theatrical production but would describe the film as Glee meets 13 Reasons Why. I at first felt that perhaps I would have struggled with the idea of people going through some of the darkest days and then breaking out into song, however I didn’t. The songs match the film perfectly and if you stop and listen to the lyrics of tracks like ‘Waving Through a Window’ and ‘For Forever’ written and composed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, they only further enhance the emotions and feelings that the various characters are going through. In fact, they become a valuable tool for the filmmaker to use, allowing the characters to reveal their inner thoughts to the audience.
Of course, one of the biggest criticisms of Dear Evan Hansen, even prior to seeing the film, is the fact that 28-year-old Ben Platt plays a teenager here. Sure, he originated the role on Broadway, but I would be lying if I stated that it didn’t stand out at times throughout the film. It does look like there is a man-child attending a high school, but Platt is so good in the role that you soon forget about it. The stars who steal the show here are Kaitlyn Dever and Amy Adams who are brilliant playing characters going through an extremely emotional event. Initially seeing Dever’s performance in Justfied, I have felt that she is going to be a star and her performance in Dear Evan Hansen simply further enhances my views on that.
I found Dear Evan Hansen to be a strong and deeply meaningful film that moved me to tears, which explores some dark issues while taking its audience on an emotional journey. Sure, the character of Evan and his action will divide audiences but isn’t that part of what cinema is meant to do – create discussions amongst its audience once the final credits have rolled? Dear Evan Hansen may not be quite as powerful as Writing On Bathroom Walls but it is still an insightful and realistic look at what it is like for somebody to live with mental illness.