In late 2016, the musical Dear Evan Hansen made its Broadway debut to wide acclaim and quickly became the latest obsession for high school musical theater kids. The musical went on to earn six Tony Awards that included Best Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical that same year. The latter award went to then-23-year-old Ben Platt, who, five years later, has controversially reprised his role as Evan Hansen in the 2021 movie adaptation alongside Amy Adams and Julianne Moore, among others. For the past few years, the show has maintained its popularity, though the 2021 film adaptation has been met with more pause than standing ovations.
As someone who saw the show in their early 20s, I could see how so many teenagers would be drawn to this story, and how the captivating visuals, pop-centric music, and focus on teen mental health wouldn’t just entertain but also create a window of empathy. Years later, I was curious how this stimulating stage show would adapt to the screen, and how the very personal conversation on teen mental health and suicide would transition to a new medium — and unfortunately left disappointed.
While the film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen offers some pockets of hope that may help drive the conversation on teen mental health forward, the moments that foster hope are far too fleeting, and the film is jam-packed with other distractions that leave its message on mental health more hollow than cathartic. According to Dr. Risa Stein, a Professor of Psychology at Rockhurst University who spoke with SheKnows for this article, it’s absolutely imperative that movies and TV shows that depict teen mental health struggles include and emphasize those moments of hope and show a path forward — an area where Dear Evan Hansen ultimately falls short beyond its inclusion of beloved song “You Will Be Found.”
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Dear Evan Hansen follows teen Evan Hansen who struggles with anxiety and depression and is assigned by his therapist to write a note to himself each morning reminding himself why it will be a good day. When he prints one such note at high school, fellow student Connor Murphy — who has struggled with addiction and is ostracized by his peers — takes it. Three days later, it’s revealed that Connor has died by suicide, and his family is convinced that the note he took from Evan was his suicide note.
Instead of coming clean, Evan leans into the lie, eager to give the Murphy family hope that Connor wasn’t as alone or as angry as they feared. He goes even further, making up fake stories and writing fake emails between himself and their late son — and this is where the story gets problematic.
When watching this show on stage, it’s possible for audiences to be fully immersed in Evan Hansen’s world to the point that his lie could almost seem understandable — justifiable. But for various reasons, the film adaptation and its nearly-30-year-old lead don’t inspire the same identification among its viewers. The film makes Evan’s motivations particularly difficult to sympathize with, and that takes away from connecting with Evan’s own mental health journey as he struggles with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.
For Dr. Stein, providing a sense that others go through mental health struggles and that you aren’t alone is one important way movies and TV shows can push forward the mental health conversation.
“The messages that we give that there are safe zones here, that you’re not the only one who’s feeling this pain; that I’m here to listen to you [are important],” Stein tells SheKnows.
But in the film, Evan’s struggles aren’t just difficult to relate to, but often pushed aside. In the stage show, the song “You Will Be Found” felt like the central premise of the story, offering hope. In the film, that message ends up feeling more like an afterthought.
Dear Evan Hansen isn’t all off-base — when it hits the right notes and gets back in line with a reassuring message, it can be pleasing to the ears. Amandla Stenberg’s character, Alana Beck, performs a song that explains how the stereotypes often associated with anxiety and depression rarely ring true, and that often people can remain “anonymous,” and appear to be thriving when they’re really struggling. Similarly, Evan’s own admission to his mother that his mental health feels like a “burden” to her profoundly resonates with many who’ve likely felt the same.
Other moments, however, undercut the honesty of the parts that do feel true. Though Evan’s confession to his mother about the extent to which he’s struggling is touching, the audience is given no time to process the gravity of the exchange. His mother (Julianne Moore) sings one song to her son about how she’ll always be there, and then we move on to the next scene without the catharsis of processing what should be a very emotionally resonant moment.
“I have trouble with [films and TV shows about teen mental health] when they present things in an artificial light and they give particularly young people the wrong impression of the outcome and the impact of suicides,” Stein shares. While the depictions in Dear Evan Hansen may not necessarily be artificial, they’re not shown in enough depth for the impact of what’s happening to really sink in.
Finally, the film falls short in one final area that Stein calls crucial for movies and TV shows that decide to take on teen mental health: showing hope and a path forward for those in the audience who relate to its story.
“There are coping strategies,” Stein says of how on-screen depictions can provide useful examples for struggling teens. “It’s not just, again, that this is ubiquitous. It’s: here’s some hope. And here’s something we can do about it. And all too often we hear the headlines and we don’t hear the hope.”
On that note, while the mental health problems presented in Dear Evan Hansen can feel thorny and resonant, but the solutions shown just don’t — and as a result, the film fails to provide a meaningful, coherent message of hope beyond the struggle it depicts. While Dear Evan Hansen in film form could have become a more accessible way for young audiences to connect with a story that focuses on mental health struggles and suicide in the 21st century, it’s instead become a symbol of how far entertainment media still has to go when tackling these difficult issues.
If this film sparks conversations about mental health within families and amongst peers, that has value, but it’s not all we should expect from these stories. Audiences — particularly those struggling with their own mental health — need more than just pockets of hope or vague reassurances that solutions are out there. They deserve a meaningful story where true community and a path forward, as Dear Evan Hansen posits, can be found.
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