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The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

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“Dear Evan Hansen”: Mental illness designed by committee

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It’s difficult to realize why this show is beloved. In all fairness, I haven’t seen the stage show and am only talking about the film. So, if there were faults in the adaptation process, they won’t be addressed here. But… wow.

The 2021 film adaptation “Dear Evan Hansen” is truly this generation’s “Crash”. I make this apt comparison because both films want you to view them as socially aware, heartfelt masterpieces simply due to their serious subject matter. In reality, being about something important isn’t enough to warrant praise. If you have nothing to say, aside from redundantly preaching the most superficial observations of an issue over and over again until your film ends, then maybe your intentions were more self-congratulatory and monetary as opposed to moral.

In the film, Evan, played by Ben Platt, pretends to have been friends with a boy at his high school who committed suicide. He uses the boy’s death to manipulate and gain respect from the boy’s family, the school and eventually, the entire internet. There’s something potentially interesting in this premise, but it’s corroded by a deeply mean-spirited and cynically crafted film.

So, the elephant in the room: Ben Platt. He definitely doesn’t look like a high schooler. However, while it’s funny to joke about, that’s the least of this film’s problems. I’ve heard people make the argument that we aren’t supposed to root for or empathize with Evan and that that’s the point. To this, I say baloney. The film, at least, clearly frames Evan as a tragic character we should feel for. This is done through two egregious examples of emotional manipulation.

The first is a reveal about Evan near the end. Instead of potentially adding some moral complexity to his character, it’s framed as some sort of twisted, unearned redemption arc. The way in which situations and character choices are framed and contextualized is everything in regards to the failures of “Dear Evan Hansen”. Okay, his mom was distant, so what? These reveal neither explain nor excuse the contrived and downright strange decisions Evan makes. And yet, the film very much believes they do because of how everything is framed in the songs. The songs are the second manipulation at play here.

Yep! This is a musical. Now, I know a lot of people happen to enjoy the music. A couple of words I would use to sum up my feelings on the music would be derivative and pandering. Disregarding personal taste, it’s far more malicious than that. The film utilizes its status as a musical to manipulate the viewer into feeling a connection with and ultimately having empathy for Evan. That seems to be its only purpose. But I found it difficult to feel any emotions when his sorrowful droning would begin and a song about the same empty platitudes regarding mental health would rear its ugly head again because both he and the film are so grossly unsympathetic.

But hey, it’s also a film. So let’s see how that aspect holds up. It doesn’t. 

Director Stephen Chbosky graces us with an uninspired romp through tired tropes and eye-rolling, corporate Hollywood-approved teen dialogue. Everyone feels like they’re phoning it in here, especially Amy Adams which is probably the saddest thing about the film. Nothing of much interest is going on visually either. From a filmmaking perspective, it’s unequivocally boring and like many musical movies, it wastes its potential for abstract musicality on flat, uncreative shots of people walking around an empty room as they sing.

Unlike what some would like us to believe, the film isn’t challenging at all. It is tone-deaf, misguided and honestly exploitative of those who actually struggle with mental illness. The awareness this musical brings to the world is at best, a shallow and disingenuous portrayal of what out-of-touch people think mental health is. And at worst, a sinister tool meticulously designed to appeal to and subsequently profit off of those who truly suffer day in and day out.

The message of “you are not alone” is a good one. However, much like with the film “Crash”, you have to ask yourself; does it really convey that message in an effective, artistic, and nuanced manner? Does it not talk down but instead talk up to its audience? I don’t think it does. Youth rarely get treated with the intelligence they deserve. It’s a shame, and regressive projects like this make me appreciate so much more the ones that don’t treat us like we’re just brainless bags of money.

Damn, this would’ve made a wonderful, darkly satirical comedy about how our culture fetishizes suicide. What wasted potential.

★☆☆☆✩ 1/5

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