Our memories tend to get crystal clear when looking back on shocking events. You probably remember exactly where you were when your favorite celebrity died, for example. The pain sears a permanent scar in your prefrontal cortex. Finding out what Dear Evan Hansen is about is like that. It’s baffling, really, that there was a hit Broadway musical about a high school student who fakes a friendship with a dead kid to get close to his younger sister.
It’s even worse than it sounds. Evan Hansen, on an assignment from his therapist, writes a letter to himself, beginning with “Dear Evan Hansen” and ending, “sincerely, your best and most dearest friend: me.” A troubled peer of Evan’s, Connor Murphy, snatches and pockets the letter in a fit of anger. Later that day, Connor kills himself. When Connor’s parents find the letter on their son’s body, they believe it to be Connor’s final words: a suicide note to his best and most dearest friend, Evan Hansen. When Connor’s parents confront Evan about this secret friendship with their son, Evan decides to run with the misconception, as it gives him access to Connor’s cute younger sister Zoe. Something to sing about!
It’s a little more complicated than that, to be fair. Part of the reason Evan can’t bring himself to tell the truth is his crippling anxiety. Dear Evan Hansen fancies itself a mental health musical: a story that burrows deep into diagnosed despair but still makes it to the other side, uplifting the depressed and fulfilling the classic musical structure of setup, fallout, resolution. I suppose it could work in theory. But in practice, it turns out that shoving a harrowing psychodrama into that structure and adding music to it is a recipe for cringe of unfathomable proportions.
You can feel the round hole fighting back against the square peg. Dear Evan Hansen sands down the story’s edges to make it fit the medium, and the first thing to go is its grasp of human logic. When Connor’s mother first discusses the note with Evan, his initial response is “Connor didn’t write that”, to which Mrs. Murphy essentially responds, “what do you mean by that? What could those words in that order possibly mean?” Unable to comprehend Evan’s clear, concise explanation, she allows the movie to continue down its path of self-destruction. Slide further down the slippery slope and you get the musical number “If I Could Tell Her”: when Zoe laments to Evan that Connor never cared to know her, Evan sings her all the things he loves about her but frames it as Connor’s thoughts about his own sister. It’s the post-traumatic vicarious incest ballad you never knew you needed (to avoid like the plague).
What’s most disturbing is that the movie doesn’t see how disturbing it is. With a dollop of self-awareness, “If I Could Tell Her” could work as an anti-gaslighting PSA. But when the song arrives, the film is in its upbeat setup phase, and the song’s delivered like it’s supposed to be romantic. It’s not. Anyone who thinks it’s romantic should be detained. Evan’s actions are outrageously manipulative—not irredeemably so in the long run, but impossible to redeem in the span of a two-hour runtime. The attempts to make him a sympathetic character are quashed by his pathological selfishness. Resolving that character flaw takes a lot more than the “oops, I was sad and that was bad” admission that the movie offers as Evan’s come-to-Jesus moment.
But enough about that rascal Evan Hansen. The real victim here is Connor Murphy. Suiciding him to advance Evan’s character arc is the least of the movie’s crimes against him. By all accounts, Connor was a hard guy to be around, and the movie wrestles with the idea that his death brings relief to those closest to him. His family even gets a song about how he’s not worth mourning. This is a genuine, complex feeling that has haunted many a person, and if not dealt with healthily, the sufferer runs the risk of dehumanizing the dead. Dear Evan Hansen runs afoul of that risk. After repeatedly insisting that Connor was a drag, the movie makes one, small gesture to “resolve” his family’s feelings toward him and then moves on to its idea of an uplifting ending. The cathartic tone of the ending is tempered—there’s no celebratory sendoff, thankfully—but given the gravity of the movie’s themes, its catharsis isn’t earned. In the movie’s limited, Evan-obsessed scope, the people who matter are better off for Connor being dead. I can’t imagine a more careless message.