Evan Hansen is crippled by social anxiety. He’s a high school student, so that’s not unusual, but Evan is a little bit more. It’s as if he wants to speak, but the words just won’t come. Not to his mother, not to his only friend, and certainly not to the girl he has a crush on. The only place that seems to bring him solace is a grove of trees in Ellison State Park.
But Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is far from the only lonely kid in school. Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) is hurting, too, but in a much different way. Though, Connor likes trees, which is something he and Evan could build a friendship on if only their interactions weren’t marred by anger. The first encounter ends with Connor screaming in Evan’s face. The second encounter ends with Connor stealing a letter from Evan. There is no third encounter: Connor is dead.
That letter, titled, Dear Evan Hansen, is an assignment from Evan’s therapist. Each day, Evan is to write a letter to himself about how today is going to be a good day and why. Miserable, Evan cannot bring himself to lie and instead pens a letter that reads suspiciously like a suicide note—addressed to him, signed “Me.” When Connor’s body is found with the letter in his possession, Connor’s parents assume their son spent his last moments reaching out to his one and only friend, a friend they knew nothing of, and invite him over for chicken. Cynthia Murphy (Amy Adams) needs to hear that her son didn’t live alone and that he did smile and have fun with someone. He was such a good little boy, she tells herself. Larry (Danny Pino) and Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), Connor’s father and younger sister, know different. They knew Connor was deeply disturbed and capable of violence. They’re sad he’s gone, but they also seem relieved Connor didn’t take anyone else with him.
That’s an awful thing to say. And the problem with Dear Evan Hansen is that it can’t bring itself to say it—quite a shortcoming in a movie with designs of tackling anxiety, depression, mental illness, and suicide. Even the demons Connor battled take a seismic shift from the first act to the third. It feels like lip service.
Written by Steven Levenson, who also penned the Tony-award winning stage play, and directed by Stephen Chbosky, Dear Evan Hansen is a musical with a saccharine and cynical approach to mental health. Platt reprises his Tony-winning performance for the screen, but the actor’s age (27) doesn’t help the cause. I could see sitting in the mezzanine of a theater and buying Platt as an anxious teenager, but Chbosky is a fan of close-ups—particularly in the musical numbers—and employs them often.
But that’s nitpicking. The real problem with Dear Evan Hansen is how sanitized the movie feels. Evan starts the story feeling completely isolated and broken, only to discover that there are plenty of other people out there who are even more isolated and more broken. One of them lives in his house, but the movie doesn’t seem interested in pursuing that avenue. Another is Connor, whose struggle is dribbled out whenever the narrative needs a boost. Then there is Alana (Amandla Stenberg), the class president, who latches on to Connor’s memory as a way to resolve her own issues. That Evan has no interest in her, when she seems to have a lot of interest in him, feels off. And that the movie seems to have no interest in pursuing her as a viable romantic interest also feels off.
Instead, Evan’s focus is on Zoe, and the movie’s focus is on the adage: If you think you have problems, ask someone else about theirs. Within an hour, you’ll be begging for yours back. That’s surface-level stuff, and that’s where Dear Evan Hansen likes it. The heart might be in the right place, but the head is empty.
Dear Evan Hansen (2021)
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Written by Steven Levenson, based on his musical stage play
Produced by Marc Platt, Adam Siegel
Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, Danny Pino, Amandla Stenberg, Colton Ryan
Universal Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 137 minutes, Opens in theaters Sept. 24, 2021.