Dear Evan Hansen [TIFF21 Review]

More and more, I realize how much I can adore an excellent musical. Both on stage and the big screen. It’s a time when I can forget about the real world and live in a fantasy world where some break out into song and dance and explain every emotion they’re feeling. It’s easier to understand. This is a point that is made expertly well in the Glee-style Community episode. But then we’re given Dear Evan Hansen, a musical that is very much about the real world and our real problems. There are too many people who suffer from anxiety and depression, and it’s about time we can sing along to songs about how we want to disappear. 

Dear Evan Hansen follows Evan Hansen (played by Ben Platt, who starred in the Broadway original production) in High School who lies about being friends with a student, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), who takes his own life. He fakes e-mail exchanges so that his letter to himself (an assignment from his therapist) doesn’t reach the rest of the school. In a world where Evan is struggling, he’s too preoccupied with how the rest of society perceives him. It’s an ongoing trait to show off that Evan is a despicable character who digs a hole that he can’t get out of, which is a lot of the tension that lingers in the film. 

I saw a version of the production here in Toronto in 2019 twice. After both times, I was inconsolable, a mess consisting of emotions, loud thoughts, and tears. I’ve listened to the Original Broadway Cast recording hundreds of times. Dear Evan Hansen should have destroyed me entirely, and while I found trying to hold back a wave of tears, I was let down by the film. It was good. It wasn’t great. 

For one, the film has no real cinematic flair. There’s nothing wrong with Stephen Chbosky as a filmmaker, and while Perks of Being a Wallflower may be one of my favourites of all time, it’s not what he does as a director that makes the film work. It’s the story and the emotions that he’s able to push to the audience. And as his filmography grows towards Wonder and eventually this, his stories become manipulative. It’s easy to put the audience into these moments that wring our tears out. After all, it’s a film about two children: one who took their own life, and one who wants to. It doesn’t take that much more to make us emotional. 

If you’re familiar with the musical or even loved it as I do, you might like the film more than I did. It just didn’t work for me to the extent it could have. The film version did keep me on my toes as songs were removed and songs were added. None of the songs removed felt missed, but the additions were huge improvements to the overall story. The film uses a lot of live singing performances, which doesn’t allow the film to sound “clean,” it helps pull on our heartstrings a bit more.

While I didn’t love the film, I’m happy it exists. It’s insane to imagine a film this open about specifically teenagers struggling with anxiety, depression, therapy, medication and suicidal thoughts can be put out as a massive mainstream musical. Some people are going to watch the film that feels more understood and seen. While before, we were forced to hide our thoughts and sweep them under the rug to be hidden from everyone, including ourselves, it can be a breath of fresh air to openly discuss what medication you’re on to even a stranger.

Dear Evan Hansen is a movie about a very unlikeable teenager who gave up on the world, and after doing some not-so-great things, he found the rope to pull himself out. While he’s not saved (as if any of us are truly ever saved), he comes out stronger, realizing it’s possible. Maybe if this film can do the same thing to help save someone, it’ll be worth it. Even if it’s not great.