By John Schilling
When the “Dear Evan Hansen” film hit theaters last week, many were shocked by the pushback it received from the critics. The Broadway counterpart, which won six Tony awards in 2017, has generally been venerated by the public. So why did “Dear Evan Hansen” elicit such a negative response?
There is much to criticize about the film, but it is all trivial in the grand scheme. It just seems that film critics and even theatergoers to an extent have fundamentally misunderstood the point of the show. Be aware of some light spoilers ahead.
“Dear Evan Hansen” tells the story of Evan (played by Ben Platt), a high school senior with crippling depression, social anxiety, and an internal struggle to connect with those around him. To cope with these challenges, Evan’s therapist advises him to write letters to himself.
When Connor Murphy (played by Colton Ryan), another boy at his school, commits suicide, one of Evan’s letters is misunderstood to be Connor’s suicide letter addressed to Evan, and Connor’s family believes Evan to be a friend of Connor’s. Overwhelmed by the desire to connect and wanting to help Connor’s family heal, Evan goes along with the lie and fabricates a friendship with Connor, growing closer to his family and providing them with some sort of comfort. As Evan falls deeper and deeper into the lie, he is faced with a moral dilemma: Should he go on lying to this family or should he come clean and risk further traumatizing them?
Right off the bat, I will admit that Ben Platt is very old-looking, and the fact that he is playing a high school senior does require some suspense of disbelief. This, however, bothers me far less than perhaps it should considering that “Grease,” “Glee,” and “13 Reasons Why” were all in the business of casting near 30-year-olds as high schoolers, and Platt is actually very good in the role. Having won a Tony, Emmy, and Grammy for his performance in the show on Broadway, Platt is still exceptional in the role, despite the quips about his age.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever, Colton Ryan, Amandla Stenberg, and Nick Dodani, who all give strong performances and bounce off each other very well. The chemistry between Ben Platt and this cast is nowhere near what it was on Broadway with Platt and that cast, but it works fine for the sake of the film.
What makes “Dear Evan Hansen” so strong, however, is that it doesn’t only challenge the morals of the characters in the show, but it challenges the morals of everyone who watches it. Evan does the wrong thing for the right reason, and you, as the audience, have to ask yourself if you are alright with that. If yes, fine. If no, also fine. The film is no different from the Broadway musical in this sense, and yet, many have not only failed to understand this aspect of the show but think it’s highly offensive.
There seems to be this misconception that Evan has to be labeled as “good” or “bad” in order for the film itself to be considered good, and this is something I don’t agree with at all. Characters are messy and imperfect, and it is perfectly fine to think that what Evan does is abhorrent. This, however, does not make the film intrinsically bad or offensive as some have claimed. Not to mention, many have tried to take a middle ground approach and maintain that the play is good, but the film makes Evan’s actions way worse and forces the audience to forgive him at the end.
This claim has been shocking to me because if you compare the film to the Broadway version, it is the complete opposite. Evan is way worse in the musical than in the film.
The film attempts to fix many critiques of the musical, which include the ending of the show in which Evan is seemingly let off the hook for his actions; Evan’s relationship with Zoe, Connor’s sister; the way Evan goes about fabricating the lie; and some edgy humor that may rub people the wrong way, especially with the shift from stage to screen.
These changes in the film version include a third act that focuses on Evan redeeming himself; Evan growing closer to Zoe later in the story and more naturally instead of forcing himself on her; some of Evan’s lies that were completely made up by him in the musical are now turned into assumptions made by Connor’s family that Evan just goes along with; and the severe paring down of Jared Kulwani (played by Nik Dodani), a character who makes a lot of edgy jokes in the musical but is far less controversial in the film version.
The real problem with the “Dear Evan Hansen” film is not that it’s still crazy offensive or problematic, but that it shot itself in the foot by trying so hard not to be and actively making Evan a more sympathetic character. Instead of letting the work speak for itself, the film essentially tells the audience that Evan should be forgiven instead of letting them decide that for themselves, which is what made the musical version so great. The new ending to the film, however, is more fleshed out, and this is praiseworthy.
But some of these additional changes that may have helped the film in one respect often hurt it in others. To satisfy the changes made, some additional things from the musical version were cut, including different songs, scenes, and lines that build upon each character. The changes feel like they are being made for the sake of the audience and runtime and not for the story. Not to mention, the changes also feel like an attempt to make the film different from the musical so the story is not a complete copy, and that is my frustration, if any, with the film.
That being said, the film is really long, and you can feel it. Some of the musical numbers elevate scenes that would otherwise be a minute or two long into five minute sequences that prevent the film from progressing at an adequate pace. On the other hand, the music is excellent, and these scenes are some of the best in the film.
So, you have to ask yourself: do you want to speed through the movie and lose the music or let the film play out with the music as is, even if it’s slower as a result? I think there is a balance that could have been found between the two, but I am erring on the side of music because it saves the film.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is far from the bad film that many are making it out to be. The story is moving and challenges audiences to think about its content in an uncomfortable yet satisfying way. The film, however, is also a bit distant from the high praise of the musical, its predecessor that put it on the map in the first place.