Before viewing the feature film Dear Evan Hansen, my only exposure to the property was through the song “Waving Through A Window”, which my teen daughter would play repeatedly in the car to and from school. If that’s the only song you’ve ever heard from the show, you get the idea that the story is about a sweet boy who feels invisible, probably overcoming some adversity, with the hopes of becoming popular and getting the girl. What is not showcased in that singular song are the indirect themes of the story: the helpless feeling of navigating parenthood through the teen years, death by suicide, and the ongoing grief a family endures from such a loss.
The movie opens on our protagonist, Evan, who Ben Platt portrays in the movie reprising his role from Broadway. It takes a certain amount of willingness of the suspension of disbelief that this nearly middle-aged man is in his senior year of high school. To watch the movie is to be subjected to mental whiplash, repeatedly reminded by the logical side of my brain that, yes, this is a much older man wearing cargo pants. Evan is the anxious, depressed teenager most audience members can relate to. He has a brief encounter with Connor, the loud, aggressive teenager, who finds a note Evan wrote to himself, hence the title, Dear Evan Hansen. Of the two teens you meet, knowing this story deals with suicide, the obvious character would have been Evan, but in fact, it is Connor that takes his own life.
Evan’s note to himself is mistaken for Connor’s suicide note. Connor’s family slowly invites Evan into their home, into their lives, to hear stories about Connor that Evan recounts. In his web of lies, he grows closer to Zoe, Connor’s sister. People at school are noticing Evan, he is beginning to have friends and be involved at school. Evan finally has everything he has every wanted, visiblity, a sense of family, and the girl.
There is much discussion to the moral compass of protagonist. Two things about Evan Hansen can be true at the same time: he is a broken person trying to atone for the shame he feels around his own suicide attempt, and he is lying to a grieving family to alleviate the pain they feel. Once again, it does feel like whiplash as we root for the good guy, and are then reminded that what he is doing is wrong. Out of his lies a foundation is created in memoriam of Connor to provide care and support to those who are struggling. The idea that “You Will Be Found” is amplified that every person can make a difference, and we have to keep on living in order to find out what that may be one day.
The intentionality of the scenes displayed throughout the songs were impressive. There were moments when the screen flashed to the past to fill in plot holes, or pushed the narrative forward. Many songs shown light on how the characters were able to express their anger, sadness, or grief in a creative manner, that I can only assume, came at the discretion of the screenwriter. Towards the end of the movie, Evan reveals that his accident that led to a broken arm, was in fact intentional. In that moment, Julianne Moore, one of the best on screen criers in Hollywood, pours her heart out to her son in the song, “So Big/So Small”. The song stays in the present moment and reminds him she isn’t going anywhere.
The movie (and the stage production) ends without the big, happy ending you want from a musical. According to Shakespeare, comedies end in marriages, and tragedies end with everybody dying. This lands in the murky, gray between. Evan is repenting for the pain he caused Connor’s parents and Zoe over the fictitious stories he made. They don’t trust him and they don’t want him in their lives anymore. And these events led Evan to opening up and letting his mother know what was going on. He is finally living a more authentic life. And for those who have survived a suicide attempt, to be grateful to be alive is the happiest ending of all.
Of particular interest to Sounds Like Nashville Readers is the Motion Picture Soundtrack Album which features the powerful duet Only Us performed by Carrie Underwood with Dan + Shay.