There are scathing reviews, and then there are the initial reactions to Dear Evan Hansen, the film adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical that premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of its theatrical release Sept. 24.
Festival audiences are notorious for their hyperbolic reactions to big premieres. Typically, the “festival high” is used to describe audience members so excited to be the first to see something screened in a room rattling with the energy of the movie’s stars and producers that they’re over-effusive with their praise. But it’s almost unheard of—maybe even unprecedented—for the reverse to be true: critics and audiences that are so eager to pan a major festival premiere that the reviews and reactions are as vicious and ruthless as they are with Dear Evan Hansen.
Surely, the film can’t be that bad, right? RIGHT?
It’s hard, to the point of impossibility, to separate the problems with Dear Evan Hansen, the film, from the discourse surrounding its source material. The musical, which premiered in 2015, was a bona fide phenomenon, spawning a legion of young superfans that injected the Great White Way with a rare youthful energy and resonance. But booming popularity paints a target. The more beloved and successful the show became, the more scrutiny was put on its portrayal of mental illness, gaslighting, grief, and redemption.
Dear Evan Hansen became a sensation with a young crowd who felt it deeply as a pulsating, vibrant depiction of hope and forgiveness, the kind that forges such an emotional connection that fans take intimate ownership of it. It also became a punching bag for shocked critics who could not believe what the plot of the play was, and what message it was sending.
That disbelief—and, in some circles, deep offense—meant that a large swath of the media was heading into the movie’s TIFF premiere with knives out, ready to fillet its rotten morals and patronizing optimism. The negativity was always going to be inevitable.
But what’s shocking about the film is that, even when braced for that backlash and skepticism in the years of debate as it was in production, it offers so little in the way of defense. Only minor attempts are made at tinkering with the crassest elements of the film’s final act. The intimacy of the camera, which should be spelunking for the nuance that is lost on stage, instead harshly exposes the storyline as unjustifiable.
The misguided decision to have the musical’s Tony-winning star Ben Platt reprise his role as the show’s titular awkward teen, despite being 27, only makes matters worse. We should be so used to grown adults portraying teens in pop culture at this point that the tidal wave of mockery towards Platt’s casting ought to be a lazy, mean-spirited overreaction. But the truth of the matter is that his mature appearance spoils any chance at telegraphing the kind of naivete or innocence that the character so desperately needs in order to come off as anything but an absolute monster.
For those uninitiated into the Dear Evan Hansen phenomenon and the divisive reactions to it, that there could be so much hatred surrounding it must be surprising. This isn’t Cats, for example, a musical that was already a three-ring circus of lunacy before the film’s stunt-casting and garish “digital fur technology” entered the litter box. It’s an award-winning piece of theater with moving songs that left audiences in tears night after night.
There’s an almost inexplicable dissonance between that kind of emotional investment and success, and then the seething passion—almost giddiness—with which its harshest critics have penned their takedowns, as if there is some sort of schadenfreude involved in the material getting ripped apart like this after its golden Broadway rise.
When the trailer for the film was first released, there was an almost collective gasp among people who had heard of this hit musical but had not seen it on stage: Wait, THAT is what this show is about?
Evan Hansen (Platt) is a shy, lonely teenager battling depression and anxiety who broke his arm and now wears a cast. His therapist suggests that he write letters to himself as an exercise in encouragement and confidence-building. A school bully named Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) steals the letter from the printer to torment and tease Evan.
Overnight, Connor commits suicide. (I am sorry, there is no way for that not to be an absolutely jarring piece of plot description.) His parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) discover the letter he had stolen from Evan and, because it is addressed as “Dear Evan Hansen…,” assume Connor wrote it as a suicide note and that he and Evan were friends. Not wanting to upset them, Evan goes along with it.
Everything escalates. With help from his friend, Evan goes back and invents correspondence and an entire fake past relationship with Connor. The Murphys are so grateful to hear these new memories that they start to treat Evan like their own son, which he embraces because his mother (Julianne Moore) works too much to spend time with him. When Evan gives a speech in honor of Connor at a school assembly, it goes viral and Evan becomes a hero. Things get away from him, and he doesn’t know how to reel it all back into the truth.
So, yes, Dear Evan Hansen is about a boy who lied about a stranger’s suicide, and you’re meant to root for him anyway. That so many people had their minds blown by this has been a humorous side story of this whole news cycle. Like Vox culture writer Alex Abad-Santos tweeted, “Dear Evan Hansen not being about a gay kid with a broken dangling arm is our Berenstain Bears moment.”
There are reasons that so many young people gravitated to the plot. It tapped into the uncontrollable nature of social media and the overwhelming pressure it puts on high schoolers today. It also validated mental health struggles in a way that seemed very current, to the point that audiences were made to empathize with Evan, even though he lied.
Your heart full and endorphins high after tear-stained standing ovations, you leave unaware that what you have just watched and what has just moved you is actually problematic. You’ve been sucked up into its vacuum of broadness and inspiration.
Songs like “You Will Be Found” and “Waving Through the Window” are gorgeous, soaring numbers. Platt’s performance, from his impressive vocals to his snot-filled, weeping emoting and the way he embodied the character’s ticks and awkward physicality, was exceptional, and the slew of actors who portrayed Evan after him did heavy lifting that distracts from the absurdities of the plot. You left feeling hopeful. Like the Murphys and the people in Evan’s community, you had been gaslit.
That felt OK, though. That emotional catharsis is something you crave from live theater. Anyone who pointed out the potential offensiveness of the plot was a hair-splitting killjoy. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs washed over you like a healing experience, a viscerality that was almost therapeutic. But that doesn’t translate to a cinematic experience, and neither does much of what made the musical special—and its subject matter excusable—on stage.
There’s a somberness to the film adaptation. Everything that felt so big about the musical, from the songs to the emotion, flatlines. Platt’s mannered performance, in addition to his age inappropriateness, is too much for the camera. There are still beautiful moments, of course. The songs are gorgeous, and it’s impossible not to feel for this grieving family. But it’s not the same transportative journey. In that stagnance, the specifics of the plot become more glaring. The ugliness that had been disguised in the sheep’s clothing of Broadway trappings was now a wolf that couldn’t be ignored.
Still, you have to wonder if the extremity of the negativity is unfair. The “worst musical” ever? Is that warranted?
It will be interesting to see how much difference of opinion there is when more audiences, specifically teens who adored the show, get to see the film. Critics almost unilaterally approached the film with the knowledge of its controversial plot and a keen eye to how it was addressed, and that’s a reasonable, professional task. But there are other elements at play: mocking Platt’s older appearance is an easy target, and participating in internet pile-ons can seem “cool” in certain social media circles.
One could see a situation in which this all just fuels the intensity of the show’s fandom once they get to see the film, too. An establishment’s rejection of the material is a validation of the show’s celebration of the underdog and the “other.” The backlash is just proving its—and their—point. Certainly, the unbearable cruelty of the internet and its attention-seeking bullies echoes in the film’s themes.
Dear Evan Hansen champions the idea that “you will be found,” that there is support and a community out there for everyone, no matter how misunderstood or in pain—and no matter how bad your past misdeeds. So no doubt that someone will be able to find those out there who actually like this film, too. Somewhere...