Content warning: This review discusses teenage suicide and mental ill-health.
From the beginning of its staging on Broadway in 2015, the musical Dear Evan Hansen has generated massive attention all over the globe, with those unable to watch it streaming the music on Spotify and begging for it to come to their country. In 2021, the movie adaption hit screens globally, but in total contrast to the stage show, was met extreme disappointment. The movie currently has a 29% rotten tomatoes rating, and a review written by The Guardian awarded it 2 out of 5 stars.
But ignore all of those reviews, because the movie Dear Evan Hansen is a masterpiece of acting, and casting and is filled with so many important messages relevant for people from all walks of life. This is the only review you will ever need.
In its first year on Broadway, Dear Evan Hansen the musical was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won six, including Best Musical and Best Actor for Ben Platt’s role as the title character. Four years after its initial opening, the musical arrived on London’s West End and tickets are still on sale.
The movie and musical adaption tell the story of Evan Hansen (Ben Platt), a seventeen-year-old boy living with social anxiety who is starting his senior year of school. Lacking any friends other than forced-family-friend Jared Klein (Nik Dodani), the beginning of the movie shows Evan bracing for another year of laying low and remaining unseen.
After the first opening number, Evan witnesses Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) being bullied in the main corridor of the school. Connor misreads the situation and screams at Evan for laughing at him and storms away, which, unknown to Evan at the time, is the start of a relationship that will impact his life and those around him for the entirety of their senior year.
A few days later, Evan is called to the principal’s office to speak with Mr (Danny Pino) and Mrs (Amy Adams) Murphy, who informs him that their son Connor has taken his own life, under the incorrect impression that Evan and Connor had a close friendship. The movie explores further themes of suicide, mental ill-health, grief and loneliness, through Evan’s characterisation and numerous other misunderstandings that influence how the rest of the story unfolds.
Most of the criticism the movie faced was directed exclusively at Ben Platt, despite this casting choice matching the musical. Ben Platt, also known for his performance as Benji in Pitch Perfect, was the first person who played Evan on Broadway and was largely responsible for its success. However, at the age of 28 people felt as though Ben Platt was no longer an appropriate choice for playing a 17-year-old boy in 2021. On top of this criticism, people also believed that he overacted the character and made him unbearably cringeworthy.
Evan Hansen is an extremely complex individual and is characterised and acted in a way that entirely represents this. He is lost, fragile, socially awkward, longing for connection, but also sweet, empathetic, and dreaming of love. The way that Ben Platt’s Evan makes the viewer feel is intentional and powerful. Yes, it makes you cringe. Yes, at points, he does make you feel uncomfortable. But I believe this is a deliberate choice. Evan Hansen, as a character, is all of those things. He is cringe, because he doesn’t know how to act in social situations and is overwhelmingly awkward, and the result for viewers is a feeling of discomfort, which is how it is supposed to be. The feelings coming from Ben Platt’s depiction of Evan are as much a part of the story as the plotline, and without it, the movie would be incomplete. These feelings are adding to the viewers intended experience.
In the opening song of the movie, Platt does an exceptional rendition of the most recognisable song from the musical, ‘Waving Through A Window’, and without knowledge of his actual age, I believe he plays an incredibly convincing teenager.
The other contributing factor to viewers dislike of the movie is the belief it is trivialising the themes of suicide and mental ill-health represented within it, which is something that I could not agree with less. Issues such as those in the movie are always going to be difficult to discuss, but why should difficult themes that make you feel sad or uncomfortable not be shown in movies at all?
Connor Murphy’s family rely on Evan to keep the memory of their son alive in their home and in their school. Evan and the family both struggle with the different types of grief they are feeling and how to feel them all throughout the movie as well. All people are going to feel the way that the family does at some point in their life, and I believe strongly that there is a benefit in creating a space where you can talk about these things too. Dear Evan Hansen successfully explores these difficult themes in a way that makes you think, through complicated characters dealing with difficult themes and leaving nothing to the imagination, instead of sweeping them under the rug where no one will consider this very real part of life.
As well as these main themes, the movie also discusses the impact of loneliness, being a single mother in America, class differences and how money doesn’t always make you happy, and the importance of having friends to talk to. All of these themes are explored in a way that is realistic and subtle, which I believe is palatable for any kind of viewer. The song ‘So Big / So Small’, sung by Evan’s mother (Julianne Moore), is a touching nod to the difficulties of divorce and being a single mother. Another, one previously mentioned as the most well-known song titled ‘Waving Through A Window’, explores the feelings of loneliness encapsulated in a catchy opening number. So, while I agree that the main themes within Dear Evan Hansen need to be treated with care, I believe strongly that they are. They are intertwined with others that leave you in a position to think, reflect and discuss a matter that should be being talked about more regularly within contemporary media, and in everyone’s lives.
For me, Dear Evan Hansen is more than just a musical or a movie. It is a soundtrack for those moments in life where you need an extra little pick me up. Everyone feels down sometimes, and occasionally it can feel like your problems are beyond help, but they aren’t. Dear Evan Hansen tackles difficult themes, with complex characters that deserve to be represented. It makes you feel yucky at times, but I believe this is an accurate depiction of reality. All lives have bad moments, but without them, there wouldn’t be good ones.
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