Right now, it’s fun and easy to hate on the new film incarnation of the Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen for a plethora of reasons. Its main star, who is supposed to be a high school senior, looks like the Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock clip, a large reason that same star got the role is likely because he is the son of the film’s producer, and the film has a problematic storyline on its face. Now, I don’t think that means the movie is inherently bad. Rather, I think it opens up some space for discussion about art that we like or that moves us and art that is good or of high quality.
There was an excellent piece on Vox by Alissa Wilkinson about a week ago regarding this very discussion and it sums up many of my thoughts on the matter nicely. The movie, judging by most reviews, wasn’t good. And I didn’t think it was good either. I could tell just based on the trailer that it would likely be a bumpy ride. But I wanted to give it a chance to be good.
From the trailer alone we learn that Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a lonely, depressed, and anxious high school kid who writes a letter to himself, per his therapist’s request. The letter is taken by another social pariah named Connor (Colton Ryan) who goes home and takes his own life with the letter in his pocket. Connor’s family finds the letter, addressed to Evan, and assumes Connor and Evan were friends, when in fact they weren’t and barely had any interactions with each other. So Evan, finally finding some sense of belonging, lies continuously, making up the story of his nonexistent friendship with Connor. He gains popularity and confidence. Oh, and a relationship with Connor’s sister, who he’s had a crush on the whole time. It’s all troublesome, to say the least.
Now, I’ve never seen the stage production of this musical and until I saw the trailer for this movie, I didn’t even know what the story was about. “Appalled” would probably be a good word to use to describe how I felt watching the trailer, but I’m 100% against letting a trailer influence my thoughts on movies as a whole, so I was determined to actually see the movie all the way through to get a cohesive view of what it’s trying to do.
Unfortunately, that didn’t help. Instead of a movie about a kid with social anxiety, a lot of this comes across as a movie about a sociopath. Evan continues lying and, in a way, manipulating a grieving family, but without any consequence. And it’s not only without consequence — it’s without conscience. For the first hour and a half, there’s barely an inkling that what Evan is doing is wrong in any way. From what I’ve read, this is an aberration from the play, in an instance where it might have been better to stick to what worked. It seems as though we’re supposed to ignore what Evan’s doing, if not root for him, instead of think about the ramifications of his immorality. (Slight spoilers in the next sentence) And once the lie is finally exposed, everything he did is simply given a brush under the rug and a shrug without any real explorations of his actions’ ramifications.
Yet with all this, there’s still a true sense of earnestness that you can feel throughout. It’s trying to spread the message that you are not alone. Its ballad “You Will Be Found” comes about halfway through the movie and is legitimately moving musically. Because at its core, this is a movie about teen suicide and mental health. It’s definitely irresponsible in how it handles these things at some points, but this movie has, and will continue to, reach people who have felt similarly to how Evan, Connor, or some of the other characters do. The songs are powerful and taken on their own, some individual scenes can probably be quite triggering for some people who have experienced similar thoughts.
I had a discussion with someone else who saw the movie and liked it, largely because they could deeply relate to some of what was happening on screen. The discussion was deeper than what we did or didn’t like about the movie, because it brought up topics of a much more personal nature. And if people put down their pitchforks and are open, I think this kind of conversation can happen in lots of places. The person I was talking to saw all the problematic things going on and we were able to share some discussion and jokes about how they were ridiculous and unethical, but they still were moved by what they had seen.
And that’s why I want to make the distinction between art that is good and art that is meaningful. For me, Dear Evan Hansen was neither. But the person I mentioned found it meaningful and that was enough for them. If something gets us thinking and sticks in our brain past the movie theater parking lot, I think that has to count for something.