In Hal Ashby’s darkly brilliant 1979 film Being There, a peculiar simple-minded gardener, Chance (Peter Sellers in an Oscar-nominated role), finds himself at the center of national attention when he’s mistaken for a member of the wealthy upper class. Though Chance, aka Chauncey Gardiner, knows nothing of the wider world beyond what he has seen on television, he quickly rises the ranks of elite society all the way to the White House. Being There is a successful work of art precisely because, as satire, it strikes a perfect balance between the outlandish and the familiar, between incisive critique and hilarious entertainment.
If Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen were presented as a satire, it could have been akin to a digital era Being There, a critical commentary on the systemic abandonment of young people in American culture, the vicious hegemony of social media in shaping our imagination, and the ubiquity of mental health struggles which plague our era. But Dear Evan Hansen is not satire. It presents its characters and story with the utmost sincerity, even a sense of self-congratulatory hubris. If Dear Evan Hansen is meant to be received as sincere—and everything about it seems to suggest that all parties involved are playing it straight—then it’s a bizarre and ghoulish atrocity.
The premise of Dear Evan Hansen—both the beloved Tony-winning Broadway musical and this filmic adaptation—is so jaw-droppingly bonkers that I initially thought it was a joke. It had to be; otherwise, it’d surely be one of the oddest and most offensive artistic misfires in the twenty-first century. But this is no joke; Dear Evan Hansen wears its audacious self-serious tone on its polo shirt sleeve. The eponymous teen (portrayed by clearly-not-a-teenager Ben Platt) is a social pariah with severe anxiety and depression. His overworked mom (Julianne Moore) does her best to support him, as does his unnamed therapist, who instructs Evan to write encouraging letters to himself (hence the “Dear” in the title). Evan has a secret crush on Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), and his latest letter—published and printed in the school library (?)—expresses this infatuation. So it’s bad luck (or fate? or destiny?!) when Zoe’s brother, the equally-aloof and depressed Connor (Colton Ryan) gets a hold of Evan’s printed letter.
Connor then commits suicide with Evan’s epistle on his person. Connor’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) find and interpret the letter to be a suicide note from Connor to Evan, indicating a sign of their close-yet-secret friendship. When the family asks Evan about this, he not only does not correct them, but creates an elaborate fabrication of their hidden friendship. Evan soon finds himself at the center of this family’s, then his school’s, then national attention–the latter comes when Evan gives a kind of eulogy speech which gets recorded and goes viral on social media. All of this is built on a deliberate lie. All of this is celebrated. All of this uses teen suicide and depression for entertainment purposes.
But surely everyone will learn a valuable lesson? Surely there’s something more to gained here for a film that seems so preachy? Well, no. Evan finally reveals his deception to Connor’s family in the second act and his mom figures out the ruse, but this revelation doesn’t seem to actually have consequences. The major takeaway here is that it was all worth it because, as Evan and others sing ad nauseam in the song “You Will Be Found,” you are not alone. Telling the truth doesn’t matter. The grieving family members and classmates left in the deception’s wake don’t really matter either. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you get noticed; it just matters that you’re noticed, that you’re found. And as the cast members sing, Evan was found.
Dear Evan Hansen seems to gleefully come to all the wrong conclusions about mental health, teenagers, social media, family systems, even music. The problematic and shallow morals could be overlooked if the formal dimensions—the acting, the storytelling, the cinematography, the songs themselves—were somewhat engaging or affecting. But for being a 2+ hour musical, it felt like there were strikingly few musical numbers, most of which feature a strangely sweaty and puffy Ben Platt belting out earworms which are, ironically, forgettable (perhaps it’s my aging memory, but I can’t recall a single lyric beyond the aforementioned refrain of “you are not alone,” which is repeated as many times as an evangelical worship song’s chorus). Though I recognize that he won a Tony for his performance on Broadway, Platt-as-Evan stretches anyone’s suspension of disbelief to the point of breaking. Platt’s voice has range; his acting here doesn’t. We don’t really learn who Evan is beyond being a tic-ridden caricature of a person with real struggles, and any character arc is so unsurprising and cliche as to be insignificant. Evan is a deeply unsympathetic character—he’s creepy, manipulative, deceptive, and selfish—but this is all quickly excused by “he has anxiety.” That the camera and direction focus so much time on close-ups of Platt’s grotesquely moist makeup-covered face doesn’t do his performance any favors. (And I haven’t even touched on the nepotism of Platt’s dad producing the film.) The songs from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are cloying, shallow, and over-produced; they perfectly complement the mawkish and manipulative screenplay written by Steven Levenson. All of it is artificial—it’s taking something real and selling us a shallow faux replacement. It’s a counterfeit replica of truth, which is to say, it’s a lie.
One aspect of this lie is Dear Evan Hansen‘s approach to social media and digital forms of communication. When the video of Evan goes viral, there’s an energized montage of YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok videos, with people responding positively to Evan’s supposedly meaningful message. In the montage, one particular YouTube video stands out due to its title: “His best friend died…you won’t believe what he did next!!!” That this moment is presented with the cinematic equivalent of a straight face is baffling to me. Evan doesn’t say anything honest at all in his speech—he mainly sings about how he really loved climbing a tree—yet this is deemed as not only viral-worthy, but inspiring for his entire community. We’re simply supposed to accept this; it went viral, it got the clicks, so it’s good. Similarly, when a Kickstarter campaign to save a local orchard (?) uses both Connor’s memory and his supposed suicide note to gain attention for teen suicide awareness (and money for the movement), it’s presented not as morally problematic in itself, but because it might expose Evan’s deception and generate a negative online perception of Connor’s family. Indeed, it’s quite telling that one of the final scenes of Connor’s grieving family features them in rapt attention of a glowing laptop as they watch yet another video. It’s presenting a digital-era ethical egoism as normative and virtuous—if it gets the clicks and likes, then you have been found, as it were.
It should be clear by now that I did not enjoy Dear Evan Hansen. Yet I will not at all be surprised when wider audiences love it, decrying those “movie-hating” film critics for their appraisal of what is obviously a “good” film. In any case, Dear Evan Hansen invites us to consider how we determine whether certain art is good or bad. Put bluntly, I think Dear Evan Hansen is not a good film, either ethically or aesthetically. While Vox critic Alissa Wilkinson finds some redeemable aspects of this notion of enjoying bad art in drawing comparisons to the music of Kenny G, I worry that films and stories like Dear Evan Hansen actually could be detrimental or even harmful in that they use serious and complex issues (mental health, teen suicide, digital media, etc.) and attempt to simplify them into a catchy and consumable product, thus drawing our collective attention away from the true issues at hand and overlooking the real “anonymous ones” in our midst.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9357050/