Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t want you to look past its easy feel-good message of forgiveness to its darker themes of suicide and isolation. Despite a decent effort from the cast, the film still overlooks important elements that might have made it greater. However, Dear Evan Hansen still manages to hit some interesting notes and moving moments with small doses of empathy that might be enough to turn it into a rewatch.
A misunderstanding of identity leads an outcast high schooler to fabricate a friendship he had with a now-deceased classmate, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan). That classmate has just committed suicide, and his family is left desperate for answers. They turn to Evan Hansen (Ben Platt), who seemingly had such a close friendship with Connor that they wrote letters to each other.
Even though it seems highly unlikely for two adults to cling so much to a teenager they don’t know for information on their dead son, Evan’s relationship with the Murphys, particularly with Amy Adams as Cynthia, holds the film’s more engaging ideas. The Murphys’ desperation to understand their son through someone they believe to have been his friend is absolutely tragic. Since we know Evan is lying, it makes the Murphys look even sadder that they easily fall for stories about their son that aren’t even true. They didn’t know their son, and they never will.
Particularly frustrating is the moment when Evan first meets Cynthia and her husband, Larry (Danny Pino). They had just found a letter addressed to Evan, supposedly by their son, explaining his anxieties and insecurities and his hopes. But that letter was written by Evan himself as an assignment given to him by his therapist and stolen by Connor days prior. Multiple times Evan tries to tell Cynthia and Larry that Connor didn’t write that note, and every time they interrupt him, absolutely sure that their son had a friend this whole time.
There’s nothing wrong with the take the film has on Evan’s journey of redemption—in fact, I was genuinely surprised how much the film didn’t let Evan off the hook. But there are some troubling priorities in the film, mainly that Connor Murphy is only ever known through his suicide. No matter how many cute songs and dances Evan lies through, everything we learn about Connor is a lie.
Therein lies Dear Evan Hansen’s biggest problem: it doesn’t actually care about Connor. Any cathartic moment the Murphys have about the difficult relationship they had with Connor doesn’t actually hold. Having Connor sing his way through a made-up story about his friendship with Evan feels gross, putting words into his mouth after he’s already gone. Essentially, Evan Hansen is the wrong protagonist.
And yet we can sympathize with Evan’s troubles as an outcast put in a difficult situation that escalated beyond his control. A little white lie to ease the pain of two parents in mourning turned into a giant online movement where others with depression could feel seen and heard. This part of Dear Evan Hansen showed the fickle and performative nature of online campaigns, and how they’re not sustainable. Nothing is actually fixed here.
Ben Platt began his Dear Evan Hansen journey back in 2015 when the musical premiered at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. all the way through its Broadway debut in December 2016. His last performance as the titular character on Broadway occurred in November 2017. Platt’s return to the role for the film adaptation was the center of many jokes regarding his age—a teenager he does not resemble—but his performance in the Stephen Chbosky-directed film makes it clear why he keeps playing this character. Charming and frustrating, Evan Hansen is not a villain in this story, despite the actions he takes throughout the film, and Platt makes it easy to care about Evan, even if we disagree with his choices.
There are plenty of areas Dear Evan Hansen gets wrong, and there are parts it gets right, even if it seems like we’re focusing on the wrong person.
Dear Evan Hansen is now playing in theaters. Watch the full trailer here.