Dear Evan Hansen Missed the Mark

Dear Evan Hansen, a movie with a promising premise crashed and burned when it came to casting.

Dear Evan Hansen Missed the Mark

If you’ve been on the internet recently, I’m sure you’ve heard of the musical-turned-movie Dear Evan Hansen. Originally a stage production, the renowned musical premiered on  Broadway in late 2016, becoming a huge hit, and garnering a massive fanbase. The show took home six Tony awards that year, including Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for Ben Platt, Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Rachel Bay Jones, Best Musical, and Best Score. Needless to say, the musical was a huge hit and a movie adaptation was nearly inevitable. Now, in 2021 it’s finally come. And I wish it didn’t.

I’d like to clarify that I am a huge fan of the musical. I listened to the soundtrack on repeat for months and eventually had the opportunity to see it performed here in Austin. The show is well written, well acted, and beautifully sung, and composed. It’s by no means perfect though. The titular character, Evan Hansen makes some very questionable decisions over the course of the show, but at the time it was never a huge issue with most critics. However, nearly everyone who’s seen the movie has brought it up, talking about how unsettling and malevolent Hansen’s actions were. People have been debating the ethics of the show for years, but it’s never turned into a full-blown controversy. Until the movie came out. 

And so,  time to talk about Ben Platt. Platt originated the role of Evan Hansen on Broadway to rave reviews, even earning a Tony for his efforts. His smooth tenor and heart-wrenching performance wowed audiences and critics alike. Platt left the show in November of 2017, and in the years leading up to the movie adaption he released his debut album and starred in the TV show “The Politician”. Now he’s back, reprising his role in the film adaptation, which is produced by his father, Marc Platt.  And people weren’t super happy about it. 

Ben Platt was 27 at the time of filming and release. Evan Hansen is 17 or 18 in the film, and his age and the perception of it are imperative to the plot. I think a major reason people didn’t have as much of a problem with Evan’s actions in the musical was because Evan was never portrayed as the unequivocal “good guy”, instead being shown as more of a sympathetic villain. The show makes it clear that Evan is just a deeply anxious, friendless, naive kid who got way in over his head. That doesn’t completely absolve him from his actions, but it helps provide an explanation. In the film, 27-year-old Platt sticks out like a sore thumb. Whatever makeup they used on him only serves to make his face look off-putting, and ironically, older. Evan Hansen looks like an adult, and that makes his actions seem much worse. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of Dear Evan Hansen, the gist of it is this: Socially awkward and deeply anxious teenager Evan Hansen is so desperate to make a connection with his peers that he fabricates a friendship with a classmate who’s recently committed suicide after one of Evan’s therapy mandated letters to himself is found in the classmates pocket, and his parents believe it to be Connor (the classmate’s) suicide note. There are even more layers to the plot that make Evan’s already reprehensible actions even more despicable, which makes age-appropriate casting even more crucial. 

Ben Platt is not the first person in their mid to late twenties to attempt to play a teenager. Famous examples include Olivia Newton-John in Grease, Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. But in Dear Evan Hansen, Evan’s only redeeming quality is that he’s young, and naive, and doesn’t fully understand how immensely messed up his actions are. That was the only thing stopping Evan from coming off as a complete sociopath, and when you remove that element that’s what he seems like. A lonely sociopath manipulating the bereaved.

It’s not necessary for a story to have a “good” main character. Lots of very popular and beloved shows and movies have unlikable protagonists or anti-heroes leading them. Some examples include Bojack Horseman in Bojack Horseman, Sherlock Holmes, and Walter White in Breaking Bad. In the musical Evan does come off as more of an antihero, but the movie removes his agency in a lot of his actions, causing him to become a villain, yes, but not a sympathetic one. 

 In addition to casting mistakes, the musical cut a few songs for time. “Anybody Have a Map”, “Disappear”, “To Break In a Glove”, and “Good For You” were cut, while new songs “The Anonymous Ones” and “Little Closer” were added. I understand why songs had to be cut, it’s a long musical. But  “Good For You” is the only song calling Evan out on his actions. This rock ballad, sung by Evan’s mother and Alana, a classmate who got tangled up in Evan’s facade, sings lyrics that highlight how despicable Evan’s actions were, and how they’ve affected the people around him. This song, in addition to being very catchy, is imperative to the plot and Evan’s character development and redemption arc. 

It’s also important to note a stage production and a film are inherently different mediums. The same goes for stage acting and movie acting. Stage acting has to be very over the top so everyone in the audience can see and understand the character’s emotion and the progression of the plot. Movie acting can be more subtle because audiences see it close up. But Platt has not changed his performance at all. The same over-the-top gestures and facial expressions he employed in the show have made their way to the film, and while it was perfect for the stage, the performance doesn’t translate well to the big screen. 

Suspension of disbelief is yet another factor that’s important to consider. In big grand musicals with dramatic songs and striking dance numbers, the audience is able to suspend their disbelief. Obviously, people don’t burst into song in the middle of the supermarket, but that action creates a separate world, an alternate reality where they do. However, most of Dear Evan Hansen’s songs are slow, emotional ballads. There are very few opportunities for big dance numbers, and what little choreography the musical has is mostly characters singing while walking, which is another factor contributing to Evan’s actions seeming even worse. 

Dear Evan Hansen isn’t entirely unredeemable. The film definitely tugs on your heartstrings and brings up some very timely messages. The soundtrack is still fantastic, and while Platt’s acting felt out of place, his voice is beautiful. But the fact of the matter is that the film depends on you sympathizing with its main character. The minute the audience turns on him, the movie becomes unbearable and repellent. Maybe that could have been avoided if the filmmakers had made smarter casting choices. Or maybe we as an audience are simply watching through more critical, or cynical eyes. Dear Evan Hansen will more than likely be remembered for the controversy surrounding it than the merits of the film itself.