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Dear Evan Hansen’s Illusions Can’t Obscure Its Positive Message

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Actress Joan Collins once said “Age is just a number. It’s totally irrelevant unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine.” Ben Platt, the original Tony Award-winning Broadway star of Dear Evan Hansen, is no bottle of wine. Sure, he was a 26-year-old man (now newly 28) filming a role as a high school senior, and that fact appears to be a nose-wrinkling knock before any curtain opens on the Dear Evan Hansen film adaptation from Wonder and The Perks of Being a Wallflower director Stephen Chbosky. 

Joan Collins was right, and it’s not the first time. Speaking of that very number, we’ve had two 27-year-old actors play high school superhero Peter Parker in two decades and a current one who’s been over 20 his entire run. Do we disown Judd Nelson and others in The Breakfast Club? Have you watched Grease lately? Nine Romeo or Juliet actors out of ten aren’t true teenagers and few highfalutin cinephiles bat an eye if the chosen performers in any of those roles pull off the parts. That’s the key.

A young man stands high in a tree scared.
Image courtesy of Universal PicturesHas

Take it to this level. Who are any of us to challenge a filmmaker’s artistic passions if those wishes end up working? In a May 2021 interview with Variety, Stephen Chbosky declared that his primary goal was to commemorate Platt’s signature performance. He explained “His (Platt’s) understanding of the character is so complete and so profound. I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing it. It’s his part. I felt very strongly about it. And to me it was never even a consideration.” 

With full support and participation of the original book author and playwright Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen is Stephen Chbosky’s movie and I, for one, refuse to argue with that. Could the film version have been a star-making chance to pass the proverbial torch to another, younger performer? Sure, but when the original is so good and capable, why take away that opportunity? As a matter of fact, there is not one teenage speaking part in this movie played by an actual teenager. What did you want Chbosky to do? Digitally de-age Ben Platt like so many awkward movie mannequins? Come on.

To make it even simpler and shoot down the arguments, Chbosky says “You just have to hear him sing the songs.” Folks, that is indeed all you need right there. When Ben Platt is on camera acting out the painful shell he created for that difficult character, I don’t see or give a sh-t about his age. He’s out there pouring his heart out in utter purity. 

Ben Platt as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Stephen Chbosky.

If you’re missing that and the substantial messages Dear Evan Hansen presents because of questionable surface-level looks, then you don’t deserve Ben Platt and you don’t deserve this movie. Pick on something else. That said, if the thing you want to pick on with Dear Evan Hansen is an unreasonable drama built on a pile of lies, you would have a minor case. 

When the volatile and troubled teen Connor Murphy (26-year-old Broadway understudy Colton Ryan) shockingly takes his own life, he was carrying a letter he stole from a bullied classmate named Evan Hansen (Blatt). The self-addressed letter was a psychiatric exercise for the meek and equally troubled Evan wondering if the world would notice if he was gone. Connor’s parents, Cynthia and Larry (played by Oscar nominee Amy Adams and TV veteran Danny Pino), interpret the written finding as their son’s suicide note and a cry for help to someone who appeared to be his only friend.

A pair of parents sit in a school office grieving.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

The fastest and most correct thing Evan could have done was speak up to say that the letter was his and not Connor’s. He could have done so in either of two initial meetings with Connor’s family, but he froze. Evan saw how the Murphys were lifted out of grief by the perception that Connor wasn’t all bad and had meaningful human connections. Needing that very same lift for his own personal pain and with the help of some cooked up emails, Evan runs with it. 

All that follows is built on a whopper of a lie that is admittedly hard to fathom ever getting as far it does. This is the point where the Dear Evan Hansen audience must understand two things to accept this preposterousness: Evan the person and the teen social environment around him. 

A mother talks to her son on a couch.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Evan is a heavily medicated teen without a solid friend and an overworked single mother named Heidi at home (played by Oscar winner Julianne Moore) who doesn’t know her son anymore. He’s walking around with a casted broken arm and a mountain of uncomfortable anxiety on his shoulders. Evan is desperate for any accepting people in his life and pines for Connor’s sister Zoe (24-year-old Booksmart star Kaitlyn Dever). Platt plays those ticks and twinges perfectly. We see why Chbosky made his insistent choice.

With rediscovered empathy blooming around him, Evan becomes the gleaming, social media-fueled hope in his school dealing with the loss of a classmate. Bolstered by the student-created “Connor Project” organized by do-it-all Alana Beck (22-year old Amandla Stenberg of The Hate U Give), topics like teen suicide, anxiety, and depression lose their taboo with raw outpourings from others. It is easy how such a bereft young man wound this way would use Connor as a conduit for his own sadness and social fears and have a hard time pushing away the trust versus the improvements he’s getting in life. The more we learn, Evan could have just as easily been another Connor with the same tragic finality.

Two students are leading a presentation in a library
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Cinematographer Brandon Trost (a James Franco favorite) pulls you from the Broadway stage into the hallways, living rooms, and psyches of these challenged youths. His tight camera is often locked onto the tear-streaked faces of these characters cracking on their mistakes. Those movements are aided by a blend of lingering pauses and kinetic shifts conducted by editor Anna McCabe (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). Stephen Chbosky couldn’t fit all of the original show into a tidy film, but chose his core songs well. That combined closeness and showiness creates a purposeful intimacy and the kind of prickly yet rousing territory where Chbosky is no stranger. 

The most winning aspect about Dear Evan Hansen that salves the layers of cracked logic is observing the ways people change. Here we are with teens opening the lines of communication and healing with each other and their families against the massive prevalence of undiagnosed problems that no one wanted to address until something trended to get their attention. Emotional connection as your most flawed self trumps likes, follows, and tweets as something you’re not. 

A young couple smiles on a carnival ride.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Even with the grand lie eventually exposed, characters have changed enough not to revert back to who or what they were before Connor Murphy and Evan Hansen. That’s where the heroes are in Dear Evan Hansen. It’s not the main character. He is wrong. He has amends to make that likely won’t ever be made, and he doesn’t get the girl. There’s nothing cheapened for happy endings about those eventual truths. 

The worthy improvement is in everyone else. Those at risk are not alone anymore. An entire community, young and old, is thinking about the ramifications of their collective actions and establishing improved social relationships based on knowing someone versus merely liking someone. Would you rather them not? Sure, that’s a pie-in-the-sky stretch in a real-life where consequences and risks are more difficult, but I call that a welcome, escapist hope to strive for and celebrate in a movie that can give it earnest treatment. But sure, gripe about weird age picadilloes instead. We see your callous pettiness.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson," our offshoot of Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com publications. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association and the Online Film Critics Society.

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