It’s all a lie. At a school assembly paying tribute to student Connor Murphy after his suicide death, Evan Hansen awkwardly stumbles a bit before he tells a tale of him and Connor hanging out at an apple orchard and sings to his classmates about how people will always be there to help you even when you feel alone and helpless. As usual with these modern-day situations, Evan’s classmates take out their phones, start recording, and pretty soon his routine spreads across social media causing this once anonymous student to become an inspiration to those with mental health problems.
The only thing though is that the story Evan Hansen tells did not happen. He and Connor Murphy did not hang out at an orchard. Evan Hansen did not break his arm while hanging with Connor. They were not friends. It was all made up as the result of a misunderstanding that Evan reluctantly goes along with that turns him briefly into an online celebrity. That’s the ultimate takeaway watching the movie adaptation to the hit Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen and one that doesn’t get better from there.
Before the movie, Dear Evan Hansen seemed to be doing well for itself. The musical was helmed by professionals with its songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo who’ve had a good run in recent years writing for big musical films like La La Land and The Greatest Showman. It made its debut in Washington D.C. in the summer of 2015 before moving to Broadway over a year later in what now looks like perfect timing. Dear Evan Hansen premiered just after Hamilton had dominated the Broadway conversation and by the end of 2016 as the initial hype was dying down, here was a new musical for people to go crazy for. And unlike Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen was a musical that was relatable to modern life regarding mental health and our use of the Internet.
Dear Evan Hansen did not become a cross-cultural phenomenon in the same ways that Hamilton did but it did make a big impact. It got huge amounts of critical acclaim and at the 2017 Tony Awards swept a lot of the awards it was nominated for including Best Musical, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Original Score. Where Hamilton capitalized on its blockbuster success by releasing a performance of the original cast to Disney+ last year on July 4th, Dear Evan Hansen opted to go the more traditional movie adaptation route with Universal Pictures acquiring the film rights and Stephen Chbosky, best known for writing and adapting 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, directing. With its success, a Dear Evan Hansen movie was inevitable. It made sense. What doesn’t make sense is the film itself.
I have not see Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway nor do I have any interest to. I do remember all the attention it was getting but it didn’t appeal to me much. But with the movie out and critics giving the film a big pummeling, it made me interested to see what all the bad press was about. Dear Evan Hansen felt like something worth checking out. After watching the movie, I can’t say the critics are exactly wrong here.
In terms of the plot, Dear Evan Hansen is basically about two polar opposite high school social outcasts who through a few chance encounters and tragedy become publicly interconnected. We start off with Evan Hansen, a socially awkward kid living with a single working mom, who recently broke his arm and takes medication for his anxiety. He runs into Connor Murphy, a known troublemaker, at school where Connor signs his cast before getting angry and takes a letter Hansen wrote to himself as part of his therapist’s orders. Soon after Connor kills himself and his parents meet with Evan to give him the letter they found in Connor’s jacket thinking he wrote it for Evan and from seeing Connor’s name on Evan’s cast, they’re under the impression that Connor and Evan were close friends.
From there, Evan Hansen becomes close with the Murphy family especially their daughter Zoe who he starts a relationship with. Evan and his friend Jared create fake emails to show Evan and Connor talking to each other. A student group called The Connor Project is started to honor Connor’s memory with Evan giving his speech at the assembly and people spreading its message through social media. But then cracks start to appear which culminated in Evan’s classmate Alana Beck posting his letter online leading to the truth getting out. Evan loses the respect of the Murphy family and the attention he gained but tries to make things right and eventually gets back with Zoe and in another self-written letter tries not to lie anymore in life.
Right away, the movie’s problems lay itself bare. Very rarely do I watch a movie and immediately start realizing its issues. Dear Evan Hansen is supposed to be a heartwarming musical about how tragedy can lead to good. Evan Hansen and his school sees Connor Murphy’s suicide as a way to bring awareness to problems they may be feeling but weren’t able to express before whether they’re the outcasts or the high-achievers. The problem is that because we all know that Evan is lying about his friendship with Connor, it’s hard for me to feel invested in the emotions the film is trying to convey. (Between this and writing on 2005’s Rent, Stephen Chbosky should apparently not work on Broadway film adaptations.) Perhaps if the movie presented itself as a more cautionary tale on people using the Internet to exploit other people’s tragedies for their own gain then it could have worked but here we’re supposed to feel sympathy for Evan Hansen for all this and I do not. On an emotional level, the film does not work.
Being a musical, you’d expect the songs to inject some excitement into the movie but it doesn’t. This isn’t a musical in the traditional sense of the medium. There are no major choreography routines or upbeat numbers. The songs are largely ballads or mid-tempo affairs with the only one I remember being a little bit upbeat being “Sincerely, Me.” This is most likely an intentional creative choice to make you understand the serious nature of the musical. But in doing so, the songs wind up feeling largely unmemorable and boring which is not great for a movie already flawed as this one. As with all musicals, the songs are competently performed but there’s not much to say outside of that. The best musicals contain songs that refuse to leave your brain long after watching them. I can’t say that about Dear Evan Hansen.
If there’s one thing I would say is good about Dear Evan Hansen it’s the acting. Many have been making fun of Evan Hansen originator Ben Platt continuing to play the title role even in his late ‘20s (Platt turned 28 on the day of the film’s release) but I honestly don’t mind it. Despite being well past his teenage years, Platt still manages to inhabit the teenage awkwardness of his character. He feels believable as Evan Hansen. I even liked the chemistry he had with Zoe played by Kaitlyn Denver, who had a good starring role in 2019’s teen comedy Booksmart. Hell, much of the teenage character actors are all in their ‘20s and I didn’t feel like they looked too old for their characters or even noticed it much. It was easy for me to suspend reality during the movie and not notice the age differences.
Dear Evan Hansen, the movie, looks like it’ll become a footnote in the larger franchise. It finished at #2 in its opening weekend box office against the currently dominant Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, now America’s highest-grossing film of 2021, which seems good given the competition but only grossed $7.5 million, well short of industry projections. If you’re a theater person and/or fan of the musical, Dear Evan Hansen will probably work fine. It certainly did for my friends and the other people in the theater. But for me, watching this movie makes me wonder what people saw in it in the first place. But my opinion probably won’t matter. Dear Evan Hansen plans to reopen on Broadway in December and considering its long run and fans, the movie probably won’t damage its reputation too much down the line.