You should never pity a movie. Not even a desperately misguided movie. Not even if it’s about a depressed kid that capitalizes on the suicide of another student, and is based on a Broadway show with the same subject matter, with songwriter Benj Pasek originally taking inspiration from (capitalizing on?) the real-life overdose of his high school classmate. You can loathe a movie, and I certainly loathe Dear Evan Hansen, but movies are too calculated and take too much work to really ever deserve or merit pity. But I still find it hard not to pity the terrible, simpering Dear Evan Hansen because it so clearly lays bare its own ghoulishness while drowning any possible complexity in laughable, hollow righteousness and the baffling aesthetic abuse of its lead.
A ludicrous coming-of-age musical about mental health, teen angst and the consuming clout-chasing that dogs our egos, it all starts when Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, who originated the role) pretends to have been friends with fellow student Connor (Colton Ryan, also a veteran of the stage show), who dies by suicide. Connor had stolen Evan’s therapy assignment—a letter to himself—which his parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) subsequently found on his body, understanding it to be the last thing he wrote. And since the letter opens with “Dear Evan Hansen,” well…they know just the 27-year-old to call. Evan quits lurching through the school with loudly sung misery, seizing the opportunity for pity and attention. Connor’s death provides the perfect chance for our woebegone hero to gaslight everyone, Connor’s family especially, with a series of escalating lies to make his own life feel a little less empty.
You know the annoying trope where the only reason a plot exists is because an ineffectual character can’t— uh— won’t— quite manage to— oh gosh I simply couldn’t— just get the goddamn truth out? Imagine that being the basis not for avoidable romantic misunderstanding, but for preying on a grieving community. And it’s all painstakingly excused by Evan’s mental illness, explaining away what’s clearly a cold-blooded psychological thriller masquerading as a morbid high school musical. Dear Evan Hansen could easily be recut into a nebbish version of The Guest, where a dead-eyed killer infiltrates not only a high school but a household suffering a terrible loss.
As Evan sings bland emo-pop showtunes about the anxiety that’s kept him “on the outside always looking in,” director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) half-heartedly tracks him through hallways and gymnasiums. He isn’t isolated in the frame, set apart only by his singing, nor is he adrift or especially ignored in the sea of teens. With a professional-yet-sleepwalking money gig kind of sheen, Dear Evan Hansen’s aesthetic mostly reads as “bored.” It’s remarkably flat, as absent of effective style as its narrative is of meaningful engagement with its content. Rhythmic jump-cut edits to different angles of Evan’s face nearly play like parodies of something that can actually keep a beat, yet underscore the film’s only concern: Evan, Evan, Evan. Your eyes flee the uncanny fluorescent-lit close-ups to the outskirts of the frame, where overacting extras and Netflix Original staging await them.
While he certainly doesn’t prove that people in their 20s should never play high schoolers, Platt and everything the film does to de-age him is distracting at best and nightmarish at worst. Platt never looks like a high schooler as much as Fred Armison nervously vamping in an “It’s Pat!” wig and pancake make-up so intense Dean Stockwell’s Blue Velvet character would scoff. The closeness and brightness of it all only makes him look more like a Muppet accountant. And Platt, for his part, grimaces through the role like he’s about to rupture something, his ridiculous cartoon vulture hunch highlighting his age rather than masking it. His cloying stare and tic-based acting are too embarrassing and obvious to convey shyness or social anxiety, let alone something more nuanced like attraction to Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), whom he seduces.
Oh, right, Evan doesn’t just use Connor’s death for popularity. He ingratiates himself to Connor’s rich parents (who shower him with affection and, nearly, their riches) and romances his sister—let’s be clear, it could only be worse if Evan had killed Connor himself and it was some kind of Taking Lives situation. The worst part of the Zoe-Evan relationship is that it’s instigated through the musical’s creepiest—yet still not most sinister—number, “If I Could Tell Her,” which reconstitutes Evan’s flirtations as things Connor told his best bud that he appreciated about her. If you wanted to see a sweaty incel sing-flirting in that awful “details I just happened to notice” style, its lyrical necromancy inflicted upon a dead kid’s sister, Dear Evan Hansen has you covered. That it’s played straight, even as romantic—with the duo’s song “Only Us,” ostensibly about the basis of their relationship being her dead brother, actually just another chance to assuage poor Evan’s self-esteem—stands out as off-putting and absurd in a film built on off-putting and absurd.
As Evan spends the first two acts pissing on Connor’s grave, you half expect him to rise from his coffin and seek bloody retribution. Tragically, he does not.
He does come back for one amusing scene, however. The film is mostly humorless (at 137 minutes, it’s too boring and overblown to even be a funny hatewatch), with thankless sassy gay best friend stereotype Jared (Nik Dodani) saddled with the sole eye-rolling comic relief, but Colton Ryan milks his morbid part in the movie’s best number, “Sincerely Me.” Dear Evan Hansen’s sole instance of physical energy and amusing filmmaking reanimates Connor for a dance routine about how he and Evan are not gay—and it’s the closest the movie ever gets to self-awareness of its characters’ vapidity. “If I stop smoking pot / Then everything might be alright / I’ll take your advice / I’ll try to be more nice,” sings Connor’s ghost with a big dopey grin, giving voice to the fake emails Evan and Jared write to prove the fake friendship.
But even the lightly self-effacing mockery of these dweebs points at a central thoughtlessness. How does Evan, a guy on multiple medications who’s clearly been in therapy for a while, still have such a facile and judgy understanding of mental health issues? It’s one of many dissonant insincerities marring even the most gracious reading of the movie.
Evan goes viral for a speech (“You Will Be Found”) about Connor and kicks off a foundation in his name, The Connor Project—an obvious homage to/co-opting of The Trevor Project (but, remember, NOT gay). This leads to donations, platitudes and vague online empathy. The movie’s feel-good hopefulness swells. And these donations go…where? Not funding access to mental healthcare, nor substance abuse treatment, nor community building. They go to an orchard that Connor frequented. This empty symbolic gesture is the most effective figurative device at reflecting the film itself. On its way to this goal, The Connor Project quickly puts a dollar figure on compassion and hope: Popular Alana (Amandla Stenberg), who also struggles with mental health and helps Evan out as an alternating scapegoat and source of will-she-find-out suspense, says that if their fundraiser doesn’t reach its financial goal, then all hope is lost—and Connor was right. A bleak and capital-centric message for a mental health movie, which means it’s perfectly fitting for Dear Evan Hansen
There are other things I could talk about that contribute to how disorienting and wrongheaded Dear Evan Hansen is—like how whenever Chbosky shoots a home’s exterior, it looks like it’s possessed—but the clash between its content, delivery and the reception it’s clearly aiming for is all-encompassing. I could go on and on about how the film presents the personality-free Evan as an amalgam of signifiers that make him a Disaffected High Schooler at its most marketable and how, when juxtaposed with Connor—described as a literal monster, he turns to drugs and punching holes in walls to cope with his problems—codifies what kinds of mental health issues are permissible and forgivable, and which are demonized. I could write about how the songs last forever; we sit excruciatingly still and watch Julianne Moore, playing Evan’s mom, truck through a song longer than the extended version of “Rapper’s Delight.” I could dig into any number of the movie’s unfortunate choices, bad decisions or downright detestable elements—sprinkling in faint praise like, hey, the Tony-winning Platt might be acting through five layers of bullshit, but he can still sing—and I’d still never capture all the reasons Dear Evan Hansen fails.
I won’t be able to answer all the questions that arise if Dear Evan Hansen’s premise didn’t scare you off—or let’s be honest, if it made you call up some friends for a bad movie night. Questions like, how did this strange, reactive musical that’s never even HEARD of World’s Greatest Dad win Broadway over? Why does its vapid earnestness feel so utterly wrong when presented off-stage and in some semblance of the real world? How does its reliance on an inherent and unassailable sympathy for a white male outsider to craft its straight-faced sentimentality reflect our culture at large? Why is it less of a tearjerker than a jerking-off motion?
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Writer: Steven Levenson
Starring: Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Danny Pino, Colton Ryan, DeMarius Copes
Release Date: September 24, 2021
Jacob Oller is the Movies Editor of Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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