Scott McDaniel: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is a timely, painful tug on the heart strings

Having seen the powerful musical “Dear Evan Hansen” on the Broadway stage, I was concerned when critics launched into attack mode on the new movie version, ripping apart the direction under Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and calling 27-year-old Ben Platt “ghoulish” in his portrayal of high-schooler Evan Hansen.

The movie’s trailer had me concerned that the criticism might be accurate.

However, after watching the film I was able to take a deep breath, turn to my wife and say, “That wasn’t bad at all.”

No, it’s not the best movie musical ever made. It can feel a little clunky and forced, but if the age of the actors playing high-schoolers is distracting, I’ve got news for you: Most of the supposed teenagers in any show you like are usually played by actors in their 20s or even 30s.

Platt does wear a bit too much makeup, but he and just about every other relevant high schooler in the story is played by a mid-20-something actor or actress. Get over it.

And there’s a reason Platt won a Tony Award back in 2017 for playing Evan Hansen on Broadway. His pipes are out of this world.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is how Evan addresses his therapist-assigned letters he writes to himself, meant to psych himself up and bring positivity into his anxious and depressed psyche. When badboy classmate Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) finds one of these letters at school, he blows a gasket when he notices his sister Zoe’s (Kaitlyn Dever) name is in the letter. Connor angrily assumes Evan is messing with him, when in reality Evan simply has a crush on Zoe.

Evan is called to the principal’s office a few days later where he is greeted by Connor’s parents, played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino. They inform Evan that Connor took his own life, and his body was found with the letter starting “Dear Evan Hansen” in his pocket.

The parents want so badly to believe that their troubled son had a close friend he wrote letters to, and Evan can’t destroy that hope by correcting them. The lie builds, and a lot of good comes from it, primarily in the form of The Connor Project, an effort to raise awareness on mental health and offering support to people all over quietly struggling in some way.

In the strongest song of the film, “You Will Be Found,” Evan improvises a speech that goes viral, reminding everyone that even when it feels like they can’t get any lower, they are not alone. It’s only a few seconds of the scene, but seeing the strong, stubborn stepdad finally crack and grieve over the loss of Connor made me do the same.

Evan suddenly becomes seen, popular, and his life better than ever. Best of all, Zoe starts to like him. Of course, lies that big can’t last. And in the digital age of social media, news changes lives faster than any other time in history, for better or for worse.

It’s difficult to stand on the tracks and see the metaphorical train plummeting toward Evan. Because many of us can relate to the feelings in the story, the climax is hard to watch, both emotionally and because the song “Words Fail” is an unsatisfying copout to a significant buildup.

It’s a musical. People walk around and break into song mid-sentence, so the lazy critique of “I didn’t buy it” doesn’t hold water. If you don’t like musicals, then no amount of storytelling will fix that. What can be applauded is the movie’s success in bringing the heavy emotions from the stage to the big screen. This is accomplished through its painfully beautiful soundtrack.

A few songs from the stage are missing. Titles like “Anybody Have a Map?” and “To Break in a Glove” would’ve made the parents less one-note in the movie, though Evan’s mother Heidi (Julianne Moore) gets to open up a bit in the concluding song, “So Big/So Small.” But the real meat of the story is still there in the soundtrack, and emotions run high.

The impact of “Dear Evan Hansen” is enhanced by its timing. In this COVID-era we live in, with isolation becoming the norm, mental health awareness is more important than ever. Especially in our youth.

That’s why “Dear Evan Hansen,” while not the best movie you’ll see this year, may be one of the most important movies of 2021. Many suffer in silence, and “Dear Evan Hansen” is a reminder that in times of struggle, you are not alone.

3.5/5

“Dear Evan Hansen” is in theaters and available to rent on demand.

Scott McDaniel is a journalist who lives with his wife and three kids in Bargersville. He is an adjunct professor of journalism courses. Send comments to [email protected]