TIFF 2021 Review: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Challenges The Stigma Of Mental Health

Scott Menzel reviews the big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen starring Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Danny Pino, and Colton Ryan.
User Rating: 8

Adapted for the screen by Steven Levenson and directed by Stephen Chbosky, Dear Evan Hansen is the latest hit Broadway musical to get the big-screen treatment. Ben Platt stars as Evan Hansen, a high school student who suffers from Social Anxiety Disorder. Evan’s therapist recommends that he write letters to openly discuss his feelings and what will be good about each day. One afternoon, while writing one of his letters, Evan runs into Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) as he walks over to the printer to pick up the letter he just wrote. Connor grabs the letter from the printer and proceeds to read it. As Connor reads the letter, he gets upset because it mentions his sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), whom Evan secretly has a crush on. Thinking that the point of the letter was to mock him, Connor takes it and storms off. A few days later, Evan is notified that Connor has taken his own life, and his letter was found in Connor’s pocket. Distraught and filled with anxiety, Evan spends the next few weeks attempting to comfort the Murphy family through a series of stories about Connor that didn’t actually occur.

Dear Evan Hansen is not your typical happy-go-lucky feel-good musical. It challenges the audience and the status quo of mental health. As a Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen was widely praised. Still, it was rather divisive because of how the character of Evan is presented in the story. I have had several conversations with people who found the musical to be problematic. The arguments typically suggest that Evan is actually the villain, but I never saw it that way. What Dear Evan Hansen tackles is something rarely explored on stage or on-screen. While it will be easy for some to write this film off as just another coming-of-age story, there is so much more to it than that.

The story explores what it is like to be a teenager whose existence is controlled by anxiety and depression. What happens in this film is more than just a moral tale of right vs. wrong but rather how someone’s mental health can control and impact their decision-making. As someone with a spouse who battles social anxiety and bipolar disorder, it is refreshing to see a film that showcases these issues in a not-so-black and white way. Now, don’t get me wrong, Evan’s behavior and decisions aren’t easy to comprehend. And some of the extremes that Evan goes to are definitely problematic, but when you take a step back and look at the obstacles he is trying to overcome, it makes sense why he would do what he does.

How one deals with anxiety varies greatly from one person to the next. For Evan, the way that he handles situations is to avoid confrontation. So throughout the film, it might be easy for someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety or depression to say, “why is this damn kid lying to everyone?” But for those whose lives are impacted by these disorders daily can understand why. Right from the beginning, we see that Evan doesn’t like confrontation and is afraid to talk about things that make him uncomfortable. When the Murphy family invites him over to their house for dinner, shortly after Connor’s suicide, Evan wants to tell them the truth. However, when he starts hearing their stories, his anxiety takes over as the family begs him to tell them stories about their friendship. At this moment, Evan is conflicted and struggling with what he should do. He begins to tell a story to avoid confrontation, and as a result, he makes the family feel better. Throughout most of the film, Connor’s family feels as though they are learning about their son through Evan, and they feel a sense of relief. Weirdly, Evan is helping the Murphy family cope with their loss, even though he doesn’t know much about Connor.

This is a very complicated story and one where several other situations are introduced that only complicate matters even more. Once Evan’s lies begin to spread, everyone at school begins to act as they care about Evan and Connor, which clearly wasn’t the case before the letter. This is something I am always bothered by in the real world. It seems like whenever something tragic happens, everyone all of a sudden likes to pretend how great someone was regardless of whether or not they actually knew them or liked them. Another subplot revolves around Alana (Amandla Stenberg), who pitches a fundraiser for Connor that she wants Evan to help her with. The fundraising effort doesn’t go as planned and what happens is deeply upsetting as it turns into a negative attack on the Murphy family.

I can easily understand how this film will instantly turn some viewers off because it refuses to spoon-feed the audience. This film isn’t easy to digest, and the story expects viewers to deal with a lot. While some changes were made from the broadway musical, most of this film adaptation remains true to the source material. Some of what is missing was done to make the story easier to follow, while the slight change to the third act makes it a bit easier for the audience to see that Evan regrets his actions and how the situation unfolded. I can’t reiterate this enough, but the film doesn’t sugar-coat things and wants the viewer to create their own interpretation of Evan and his actions.

I don’t think anyone could have assembled a better cast than Stephen Chbosky, Tiffany Little Canfield, and Bernard Telsey. When the trailer was released for Dear Evan Hansen, the internet judged a book by its cover and criticized the film before they actually saw it. Ben Platt reprising his role as Evan Hansen wasn’t only the right decision, but the perfect decision. Platt brings such depth and authenticity to the role. He was one of the main reasons the Broadway show became a massive success, and seeing him in the film adaptation solidifies that. You can see the raw emotion that Platt brings to each scene in the film, and when he breaks down, you can’t help but feel the pain that he is feeling. Platt is truly incredible in this role, both on stage and on-screen. He deserves to be recognized for his terrific performance.

Alongside Platt, the supporting cast, including Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, Amandla Stenberg, and Danny Pino, are all pretty freaking fantastic. Each of these actors has a scene that is so emotionally charged and poignant. I love the relationships between Evan and Zoe, as well as the relationship between Evan and Alana. For those who haven’t seen the stage play, Alana gets more character development in the film, and that’s great because Stenberg is such a talented actress. Dever and Platt’s chemistry is spot-on, and I loved the scenes where we get to see the two of them bonding after things begin to settle down. The scenes involving Adams and Pino feel so true to life as these two fight about their life after the loss of their son. Moore isn’t in the film as much, but her few scenes are among the best. A heart-to-heart scene between her character and Evan was so powerful.

Dear Evan Hansen challenges audiences and the stigma of mental health. It will make the viewer think and ask questions while shining a light on those who struggle with anxiety, depression, and mental health. I loved Ben Platt on stage, and I loved him just as much here. Dear Evan Hansen reminds us that we are not alone and will hopefully start conversations about the importance of mental health awareness. It might not be the easiest film to watch or process, but it is one of the most authentic musical adaptations I’ve seen in a long time.

Scott Menzel’s rating for Dear Evan Hansen is an 8 out of 10

8
Great
Written by
Born in New Jersey, Scott D. Menzel has been a film fanatic since he was three years old. Growing up, he watched as many movies as he could and was highly influenced by Tim Burton, John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. Scott has an Associates Degree in Marketing, a Bachelors in Mass Media, Communications and a Masters in Electronic Media. He has been writing film reviews under the alias of MovieManMenzel since 2003 and started his writing career as a contributing critic at IMDB.com and Joblo.com. In 2009, Scott launched MovieManMenzel.com where he posted several of his film reviews but in 2011 decided to shut down the site when he launched We Live Film.com, which he founded. In 2015, We Live Film became We Live Entertainment. The domain name changed occurred after months of debate but was done so that he and his fellow staff members could write about anything and everything in the world of entertainment.

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