Dear Evan Hansen, by Albert W. Vogt III

During my last stint as a youth minister, one night I received a phone call from my pastor.  This was not a usual occurrence, but he had been inspired by a musical he had just seen called Dear Evan Hansen.  What he wanted was for me to organize an outing for my ministry to go see it as well.  Admittedly, I was a little confused.  Whenever a youth ministry does anything these days, you have to have a small stack of documents signed, and in some cases notarized.  There are understandable reasons for this needing to be done.  We live in a litigious society, and with the number of priest scandal cases in recent decades, this is meant to demonstrate the Church’s due diligence in protecting teens.  It is a hassle, but a necessary one.  Unfortunately for our pastor, the show was not in town long enough for us to get organized and go.  For me, I appreciated avoiding having to sit through a musical.  Yet, on the strength of its popularity as a Broadway hit, they decided to make a film version.  That brought this Catholic movie reviewer to the theater this past weekend.  Having seen it, I am not sure whether or not it would have been a good for my teens to see the stage version.  As such, this review will be me wrestling with what to make of this story.

The title character (Ben Platt) in Dear Evan Hansen has anxiety issues.  The first thing we see is him waking up and writing a letter to himself, trying to convince himself that today is going to be a good day as long as he can just be himself.  My apologies for using “himself” so many times in one sentence, but I digress.  It starts to make him feel better, along with the pills he takes, until he realizes that he has to be confident.  Could he truly be confident?  As soon as that creeps in, he is back to social awkwardness.  When he gets to school, he sits with his “family friend” Jared Kalwani (Nik Dodani), who makes it clear that they are not actual friends.  This is confirmed as Jared pokes fun at Evan’s explanation of his abortive attempts at wooing his crush, Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever).  Later on in the library, Evan sits at a computer attempting to finish the letter he began that morning.  It is while he is there that the troubled Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) approaches Evan and signs Evan’s cast, the result of a broken arm sustained over the summer.  Unfortunately, Connor gets to the printed letter first, sees mention of Evan’s crush on his sister, Zoe, and takes the missive.  Evan believes that it will be posted online, adding to his embarrassment.  Instead, the next day he finds out that Connor committed suicide.  He is called into the principal’s office, and there he meets Connor’s parents, Cynthia Murphy (Amy Adams) and Larry Mora (Danny Pino).  When they discovered Connor, they found the note that Evan wrote and believed it to be a sign that they were friends.  Evan does not have any friends, but he is so flabbergasted by their supposition that he goes along with it.  Soon, he is being asked to come to their house for dinner.  He goes, despite some trepidations, because he wants to spend some time with Zoe.  At dinner, he concocts a story about how they had hung out together, which is partly based on his own experiences from the summer.  Because of everything Connor had gone through, with the death of his father and being in and out of mental health facilities, Cynthia and Larry felt like they did not really know their son.  In order to keep the façade going, Evan gets Jared to helps to create a series of backdated, fake emails that make it look like they had been friends for a long time.  At school, Connor’s death inspires the over-achieving Alana Beck (Amandla Sternberg) to begin a movement to raise mental health awareness amongst her peers called The Connor Project.  Still somewhat hesitantly, Connor agrees to give a speech about Connor.  It does not get off to the greatest start until he launches into the tale he spun for Connor’s parents, adding in some of his personal struggles with anxiety.  The video of the speech goes viral, making Evan a celebrity and bringing him closer to Zoe.  His budding relationship with Zoe takes his attention away from The Connor Project, and Alana begins to question the veracity of Evan and Connor’s friendship.  The project is also close to making their donation goal of buying the apple orchard that Connor loved so well, but flagging interest is putting it in jeopardy.  Thus, when Evan shares with Alana the McGuffin letter, she decides to post it online.  Doing so calls into question Cynthia and Larry’s parenting, and initiates a huge argument.  It is at this point that Connor finally comes clean to them first, and then everyone else.  He becomes an outcast once more, yet he is able to track down a video clip of Connor playing the guitar in group therapy.  Evan sends the video to Cynthia and Larry, which helps.  The film ends with Zoe forgiving Evan in the orchard.

Okay, so what can I say about Dear Evan Hansen?  Perhaps I should warm up to this task.  First, I did not find Platt’s singing voice to be all that great.  I am already disinclined towards musicals, but at times his vocals were off-putting.  I did not read any of what other reviewers said about it, but I am guessing this is part of the reason for why the critics gave it such a low grade.  Ultimately, the biggest question you have to ask yourself is: how do you judge Evan’s actions?  As I am not God, any opinion I give is worth only the attention it receives.  There are two paths I see for looking at Evan.  The first is that he is a monster.  Whether he has issues he is working through or not, anyone who could mislead so many on a subject so sensitive as teenaged suicide, let alone what he did to Connor’s family, is an order of magnitude beyond wrong.  His motivations were selfish to boot, using the sympathy everyone is feeling in order to start a relationship with Zoe.  He is also offered several opportunities to end things before they went further, even after his initial meeting with Cynthia and Larry.  He also eschews the help of his mother, Heidi (Julianne Moore), doubling down on the lies and preferring Connor’s family over her company.  As a single mother taking long shifts as a nurse, Evan feels neglected by her.  The other side of things is the fact that Evan is an immature teenager.  Thinking back to our high school days, how many of us can honestly say that we would have behaved any differently than Evan.  I was no social butterfly back then, but if I was dealing with such powerful emotions as Evan, I do not know if I could have made better choices.  It all makes the film quite the conundrum.

There was one overwhelming thought that struck me while watching Dear Evan Hansen: how far we continue to slide as a society away from God.  One thing that I will praise the film for is its attention to mental health issues, and its message that anyone going through them is not as alone as they might feel.  I cannot emphasize enough how important of a reminder that is for those dealing with things like anxiety or depression.  The greatest expression of this comes when Evan finally opens up to his mother, saying that he should not be loved because he is broken.  She responds with the best phrase, that she loves him anyway.  There is so much brokenness in this world.  Instead of getting better, though we talk about it like it magically will someday, we seem to be going in the wrong direction.  As a Catholic and somebody who has studied society historically, I see this as a product of a loosening of morals that got underway in the twentieth century.  As church attendance decreases, there is a concomitant spike in social and personal issues.  Is it any wonder that divorce, suicide, murder, rape, pill usage, and recreational drug use rates have all gone up as church pews become increasingly empty?  At the same time, I do not think it has anything to do with mankind collectively being bad in some way.  Clearly, people are searching for answers.  That is what every character is trying to do in the film.  The problem is that more often anymore we are looking for them in the wrong places.  A person who had a terrible day will turn to some substance to take their mind off whatever troubles them.  A couple who had a terrible argument will file for divorce instead of attempting reconciliation.  Anger with another becomes violent.  There is one person that can help in all these situations if you let Him in, and that is God.  I am also not going to sit here typing away and tell you that it is that simple.  A relationship with God takes work.  Faith is a verb.  It is also personal, though a Faith in noun form like Catholicism provides a useful framework to get started and thrive.  In the end, we need each other as the film mentions, but we need God the most.

Given the fact that Dear Evan Hansen talks about suicide, as well as some other sensitive subjects, I would not recommend it to a younger audience.  I do not know how comfortable I would have been showing it to my teens, though my pastor back then wrestled with the same issue.  I also do not know if I give it my stamp of approval overall.  To be sure, there are some good things to come out of it.  And yet, I remain torn as to how I feel about the main character.  My apologies if this is a bit wishy-washy.  These are not easy subjects to tackle, and there is much in the film with which I could identify.  Yet, between being a musical and my desire for some acknowledgement of a higher power, I remain lukewarm.

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