Probably weird that I’m coming back after almost 2 years of not posting to talk about a controversal adaption of the polarizing musical starring Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen. I’m gonna get real specific with this post though. I’m not going to talk about how Ben Platt looks too much like the Cryptkeeper to play a highschooler, I’m not going to talk about how weirdly bleak and sterile the whole vibe of the movie is, I’m not going to talk about how weirdly bad Amy Adam’s performance in this is, and I’m definitely not going to say a word about how goddamn creepy it is that Evan actually dates the sister of the suicide victim he’s basing his long term deception on. No, I’m going to talk about one song, and how everything wrong with the movie (and the broadway musical to a lesser extent) can be traced back to it.
“Sincerely Me” is an outlier in the movie’s list of tracks in that it’s the only upbeat, choreograph heavy number, and also by being the only song that I really like. In fact, it’s the first song I heard from the soundtrack years ago, which led to me listening to the rest of the album only to be shocked and disappointed in how goddamn maudlin and self-serious the musical turned out to be. What I thought was one brilliant song among many in a satirical musical about how social media has incentivized today’s adolsence to be less connected to each other emotionally and far more willing to do sociopathic things to advance their own social capital, was actually an outlier song in a musical that seems to hate and resent the very concept of fun.
To understand what’s wrong here exactly requires an understanding of Evan Hansen’s crimes. Evan is a teenager that suffers from social anxiety, loneliness, and depression that lives with a single mother that’s too busy working to support the family to spend time with him. Some hijinks happen and a kid carrying a theraputic letter Evan wrote to himself (‘Dear Evan Hansen…’) is found in the posession of troubled teen that killed himself while the letter happened to be on his person. The deceased teen, Connor Murphy, had parents that barely knew him but become convinced that Evan did based on the letter they mistake for a suicide note. Heartbroken about their dead son, they beg Evan to fill the gaps about his life to them because they’re understandibly shattered and upset about his suicide. Evan takes this opportunity to spin a yarn about his ‘best buddy’ Connor Murphy and their misadventures to comfort his parents, but also to grow closer to Connor’s sister Zoe, who Evan is in love with. He uses his fake connection to Connor to insinuate himself into their lives, aggrandize himself in these false stories about how he was always trying and failing to get through to their troubled loved one, eventually seducing Connor’s sister and starting a massive social media campaign about honouring Connor’s memory and placing himself as the face of the movement for reaching out to kids suffering in their mental health. Viral youtube videos, a kickstarter campaign, commerative wristbands circulating the school, and much more is heaped on the corpse of a dead kid with no say by a guy with no compunctions about stealing the affections of a grieving family. Obviously what follows is Evan’s deception being exposed, his fall, then his returning to his own humanity and attempting to make ammends. Unlike a lot of critics, I’m not immediately put off by this deeply black hearted story on its own, but the presentation is where the film loses me.
Reading over Evan’s deception, this is clearly a cynical tale about a sad person that used a person’s death to ruthlessly take everything he didn’t have in his own life. He took the love of Connor’s parents, the romantic affection of his sister, and the love of a school that hated and feared him. In a lot of ways, Evan stepped over Connor’s corpse to live the life they both wished they had but didn’t. It’s no coincidence that it’s revealed in the third act that Evan also tried to take his own life, only he failed where Connor sadly succeeded. The issue with all this is, the rest of the film doesn’t get how deeply twisted and darkly comic this all is. It’s wall to wall ballads about how badly we should feel about Evan, how badly Evan feels, how we should all sincerely reach out to those who are in trouble, but this isn’t a sincere story at all! It’s about a cruel deception based on one of the darkest subjects in existence. “Sincerely Me” is the only song that seems to understand this, the only song that understands what the musical Dear Evan Hansen ultimately should have been. It’s no coincidence that it’s the most reminiscent of a song from a superior musical with a similar subject matter, Heathers.
In “Sincerely Me”, Evan and his (family) friend Jared concoct a scheme to keep his ruse going. They write a series of letters in the voice of Connor supposedly addressed to Evan intended for Connor’s parents ostensibly so they could feel more connected to their dead son, but really to provide a reason for Evan to further entrench himself in their lives. In the song, a reanimated eerily chipper Connor Murphy is shown singing the words Evan and Jared have written for him, dancing his way through the halls of a school he hated, singing about how much of a dear friend Evan was to him. Critics have noted how grotesque it felt to them, seeing a dead child marionetted this way by our protagonist, but they miss what’s really wrong with the scene. It wasn’t a glaring point of insensitivity, it’s literally the only song in the film that understands the dark core of our protagonist Evan. It’s a deeply insincere, cynical riff on the life of a suicide victim to aggrandize another troubled individual. It’s funny, it’s creepy, it’s catchy, it’s the only song that ‘gets it’, and it’s genuinely infuriating how little the rest of the film seems to understand itself. With this song you see a glimpse of what this musical should have been, an anti-heroic tale about a troubled and selfish individual whose hubris and greed eventually leads to his downfall, but also the reemerging of his own humanity.
The film ends with Evan being exposed and then making an honest effort to get to know the real Connor Murphy, which is a much more thoughtful ending than the broadway show admittedly, but like everything else in the musical, it doesn’t work as well as it should due to the saccharine, naively sentimental tone that encompasses the whole movie. What should have been a counterweight to all the cynicism, thoughtlessness, and cruelty Evan engaged in, was another mawkish set piece in a film full of them. It’s so tremendously dissapointing. How do you treat a protagonist willing to prop up the corpse of a dead sibling to seduce his sister as anything other than a scoundrel? You could have built a fun, but ultimately trenchant film about the social media age and mental health around such a character, but instead we got this weepy confused mess. Dear Evan Hansen, why did you make the choices that you did?
Pic of the Day: