‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Review: Why Did We All Think This Was About a Gay Kid

Remember back in high school, how there was always one kid that looked way too old when compared to the rest of your classmates? Maybe he was really tall or had impressive facial hair? Despite the first impression, you could still pick up on the fact that he was a teenager. I think Ben Platt believes he looks like that, like someone could confuse him for a 20-year-old while also accepting that he’s 18. Yet, as he strolls into a high school gym on the first day of school as the titular character at the beginning of Dear Evan Hansen, he looks like a man in his 40s. This might seem an inconsequential detail at first, but it’s only the first in a parade of issues that build toward a clear conclusion: Dear Evan Hansen is an atrociously bad film.

Directed by Stephen Chbosky, Dear Evan Hansen is an adaptation of a 2015 Tony Award-winning musical. Evan is an awkward and troubled teenager trying to overcome his mental health issues. The extremely clunky first few minutes get us up to speed: he’s in therapy, he takes medication, his mother (Julianne Moore) is a nurse who is often absent, and he’s trying to have a great senior year. At first glance, Evan seems sympathetic. But that sympathy is quickly dashed as he digs himself into an increasingly deep hole.

A single lie propels Evan’s life into its ideal state. He gets everything he’s ever wanted — parental figures who are present and caring, an actual circle of friends, and the girl of his dreams finally noticing him. It’s what the lie entails that made my skin prickle uncomfortably, that made me let out a wail in the packed theater: Evan Hansen lies to everyone in his life, for almost a year, about being best friends with a boy who committed suicide, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan).

Dear Evan Hansen

Oh Dear Me

We’re supposed to understand that these are the actions of a profoundly sad and lonely young boy who cares too much about finally integrating with the world around him to think about the consequences of his actions. But Dear Evan Hansen fails on the most basic level to convey this, simply because the lead is woefully miscast. Platt originated the role on Broadway, but his casting at 27 years old for the film has spurred accusations of nepotism (his father is one of the movie’s producers). At first, these conversations seemed overblown and unnecessary to me. But Platt is genuinely one of the main reasons why this film doesn’t work. He doesn’t ever read as a pitiful teenager. When he dons a button-up and tie, he looks like a weary office worker. Evan’s actions, therefore, read so much more maliciously. He’s too old to act this way, to be this cruel to so many people in his life. As a result, no amount of explanation, no powerful ballads or tears could get me over the hurdle that is this film’s basic conceit. It sat in my throat, impossible to swallow.

Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t work for many reasons, only one of them being the severely unpleasant actions of its main character as committed onscreen by an adult man. The direction is flat and uninspired almost the entire way through. The songs are mostly just characters sitting, standing, or walking around one room, the camera slowly zooming into their faces. The only song that plays with the fact that it’s a musical number in a film is “Sincerely, Me,” which features boisterous choreography and engaging camerawork that brings a jolt of life into the otherwise turgid affair. It seems incomprehensible given that the film is literally adapting a musical, but except for the aforementioned number, every other song feels like it’s shoved into an otherwise normal narrative. They don’t feel naturally woven into the scenes. Instead, they always come as a shock as characters suddenly start singing. The transitions are hardly graceful, doing a severe disservice to the more somber songs on the soundtrack. 

The worst part about Dear Evan Hansen is that there are glimmering embers of an excellent film hidden deep beneath the repellent surface. Kaitlyn Dever plays Zoe Murphy, Connor’s younger sister and Evan’s “love interest.” She isn’t despondent, as one would expect when confronting the unexpected loss of a loved one. Instead, she is angry, frustrated, and almost relieved. Zoe is a doorway into the much more interesting story of the Murphy family. Her biting remarks reveal that Connor wasn’t just a misunderstood loner. He was a struggling addict, and most of Zoe’s memories of him paint him out to be cruel and violent. One of the best sequences in the film, the Murphy’s performance of “Requiem,” conveys the entire family’s complex reactions to Connor’s passing on a spectrum. How do you grieve someone when you’re not even sure you loved them? It’s the only point I felt that the sadness I was experiencing wasn’t being manipulated out of me. It was complicated, touching, and genuinely emotional. Of course, the song is then immediately undercut by the following scene, in which Evan tries to comfort Zoe by pretending that all of the things he “loves” about her are comments that her dead brother made to him.

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Dear Evan Hansen

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Dear Evan Hansen is described as a “coming-of-age musical.” What it felt like in that theater, however, was a horror movie — one where the monster wins. Evan faces little to no consequences for the amount of pain and suffering he’s caused not just a family, but an entire community. Yet, as the main ballad blared over the ending credits, I think the film expected me to feel uplifted. How am I supposed to be uplifted after sitting through the film equivalent of a heavy-handed school assembly about depression and suicide? How am I supposed to be uplifted when — on top of everything else — I just sat through two hours of a completely wasted Amy Adams?

Dear Evan Hansen made me angry. It’s boring and ugly to look at, even before you take actually listen to what it’s saying. At that point, it crosses the line into being reprehensible. The only good thing I can say about it is this: unlike when the Broadway production was making waves, I am no longer in high school, so I won’t have to endure any conversations with teenagers about how this nightmare is “good, actually.”