I will always remember the last suicide attempt.
I'd flirted with the idea of suicide since the late teens, though it was a brief, ill-conceived marriage that ended in the suicide of my wife that would finally send me into a downward spiral from attention-seeking suicidal gestures into outright serious suicide attempts.
The last attempt was, I believed, at the time, guaranteed to succeed.
I was sitting in a vast Kroger parking lot on the Westside of Indianapolis. It was a mile or so from my childhood home, though I'd moved away years earlier and at this time was actually living in my car. After an attention-seeking phone call to the "therapist" with whom I was actually sleeping (Okay, technically, we weren't actually sleeping), I climbed into the backseat of my 76' Camaro. I dowsed the car in gasoline. I dowsed myself in gasoline.
I lit it.
Nothing. Not even a spark.
I tried again.
Nothing. Not even a spark.
"I can't even kill myself right," I thought to myself.
It would be only a few moments later, as I sat there weeping and furious in the backseat of my car, that an old friend would suddenly come up knocking on my car window.
The smell was atrocious.
She had to know.
By the end of our relatively brief conversation, she would offer me a place to stay and, yes, she offered me a job.
So yeah, I once got a job offer while dowsed in gasoline.
Looking back on this chapter in my life, I am beyond embarrassed. I'm not embarrassed because I attempted suicide, though I'm certainly grateful years later that I failed. I'm embarrassed because when I look back I can remember all the ways, big and small, that I hurt others and, yes, even sitting in that parking lot well away from any other cars or people I seemed completely oblivious to the profound damage that my actions could do.
I was a good human being in most ways. I was a highly traumatized human being struggling to survive, though that struggle didn't give me the right to hurt others in the ways that I found to do so during that period. I'm beyond amazed that some of my friends from that period in life remain my friends to this day.
I'm a lucky man now. I recognize this over 30 years past my last suicide attempt.
Dear Evan Hansen is a messy film. It's a film that will have its haters, though somewhat ironically since the very things people are hating about it now are the reasons it became a Tony Award-winning Broadway play.
There are a myriad of reasons to not like Dear Evan Hansen just like there are a myriad of reasons to not like the actual character of Evan Hansen.
There were a myriad of reasons to not love me during my late teens and early 20's. To this day, I'm not sure I could adequately explain why I survived and why some dear ones chose to stick by me through it all.
But yeah, life is messy like that.
We want our suicidal people to be sympathetic. We want our sociopaths to be deplorable. We want redemption to be earned. We want forgiveness to be deserved.
That's usually what Hollywood gives us.
That's not what Dear Evan Hansen gives us.
Dear Evan Hansen gives us Evan Hansen, a high school senior on the edge of serious mental illness and struggling to survive in a high school world that he doesn't quite grasp and around a social media world where soundbyte socializing lacks the emotional resonance of the voices in his head. As played by Ben Platt, a now 27-year-old actor who originated the character onstage, Evan Hansen is a charmingly dweebish sort of dude whose kind eyes place him somewhere on the personality spectrum between Bob Ross and Ted Bundy and Dylan Klebold. There's a constant feeling that there's something deeper underneath the surface, though a good majority of Dear Evan Hansen asks us to completely adore him.
For the most part, we do.
Having now seen Dear Evan Hansen on film, I now long to see Dear Evan Hansen on the stage where its natural and inherent intimacy could more fully come to life with the intimacy offered by a live audience. However, despite what the haters will loudly proclaim, Dear Evan Hansen understands the messiness of daily life and mental health and teenage angst. It's not a perfect film, but a perfect Dear Evan Hansen would not be faithful to its story. Director Stephen Chbosky, who gave us The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder, somehow makes sense of these imperfections and brings to life this largely understated musical that chooses to explore love and fear, joy and sorrow all often in the same song.
Steven Levenson adapts the script from his own Tony-winning book and does so having obviously lived in this story since its 2016 debut. There are changes big and small to the story, some grappling with the gravity of Evan's behaviors and others simply adding structure and cohesion more appropriate for the big screen. Platt's turn as Hansen on stage turned him into a star, the voice of an angel masking the starkness of his reality. Now a Grammy, Emmy, and Tony winner, Platt does indeed now look a tad too old to convincingly portray a high school senior though casting 24-year-old Kaitlyn Dever alongside him helps smooth out those rough edges.
Hansen is a high schooler likely destined to be voted "Most Likely to Experience a Nervous Breakdown" with a raging case of social anxiety and an awkwardness indicating he just wasn't made for these times. In case you're unaware of the basic storyline, Hansen gets caught up in a deception that turns into a lie that turns into a campaign of lies. He goes from unpopular nerd to viral sensation without ever really losing his stumbling awkwardness until he starts to buy into his own hype.
The entire plot is grounded upon the masks that Evan never stops wearing, a fact that is perhaps driven home even more powerfully by the largely unsuccessful attempts to de-age Platt via an unconvincing make-up job. Faithfully completing an assignment given to him by a therapist to write encouraging letters to himself each day, Hansen is horrified when Colton Ryan's Connor Murphy discovers one of the letters and refuses to return it.
In the social structure that is their high school, Connor is Eric Harris to Evan's budding Dylan Klebold. When Connor unexpectedly takes his own life later that same night, his parents are stunned to find a final note in his pocket seemingly addressed to, yes, Dear Evan Hansen.
The masquerade begins.
Evan has been raised by a single mother (Julianne Moore), a nurse working irregular hours whose love for Evan is obvious even if it's mostly shared via text or on her way to work an extra shift. She loves Evan, though it's not displayed in a way that he can feel it. So, when Connor's parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) begin to show him the attention he's long craved he goes along with it.
Some are critical of Hansen's almost brutal manipulation of a grieving family, though digging a little deeper reveals two parties unhealthily manipulating one another to fill an empty void that most likely can't be filled. This becomes even more profound when Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), Connor's younger sister and a longtime crush of Hansen's, begins to return his affection.
The dramatic impact of Dear Evan Hansen could have landed much more mightily had Chbosky trimmed things just a bit. At times, Dear Evan Hansen slows down enough to let its messiness be revealed and that's a shame because there's so much beauty underneath the surface. Despite concerns about his age, which are overstated, Platt knows this character inside out and it shows. Platt's is a masterful performance that captures all the intimacy and the universality of this story and his character. When Platt sings, it's as if the world stands still and you simply can't help but be mesmerized.
There's no denying that mental health awareness is planted firmly within the foundation of Dear Evan Hansen. From Hansen's own social anxiety and depression to Connor's antisocial behaviors to Amandla Stenberg's remarkable Alan Beck, a classic overachiever masking over the reasons why she compulsively overachieves. Additionally, "The Anonymous Ones," a new song for the film co-written by Stenberg, is easily one of the film's highlights with stellar lyrics and Stenberg's beautiful delivery.
However, Dear Evan Hansen, is ultimately about much more than mental health or social anxiety or even the ache of loneliness in this social media age. Dear Evan Hansen is as much about unwarranted grace and understanding in a world that has forgotten how to do so anymore. This is reflected, quite profoundly, even in some of the initial reactions to the film as people crave more defined consequences for a young man who was struggling to survive, faked his way to something resembling surviving and even thriving, watched it all slip away, but somehow learned something about himself and others along the way.
Grace isn't something that's earned. It isn't something that makes sense. It's almost miraculous, really, because it tends to show up when we least expect it and when we least deserve it.
It's what happens when a grieving family strips away the facade of family life and learns how to really love one another.
It's what happens when a suicidal young man makes all the wrong decisions for all the right reasons and learns that you can't fake your way to community or relationship or human connection.
It's what happens when a single working mother who loves her son really learns how to love her son in meaningful ways.
It's what happens when a filmmaker embraces the inherent messiness of mental health and social media and teenage angst and loves characters who aren't always doing lovable things.
In addition to Platt's remarkable performance and Stenberg's poignant and deeply felt turn, both Amy Adams and Julianne Moore take mothers seemingly on opposite ends of the maternal spectrum and they make us love them and understand them and, yes, offer them grace. We've always known Adams has a beautiful singing voice and it's on perfect display here. Moore's voice is a bit more studied, an intentional and disciplined voice that works quite nicely for her similarly disciplined character.
As Jared, Nik Dodani is now an out gay teen and the closest thing that Evan initially has to a friend. He's richly humanized here and a nice counterpart to Evan's increasingly deceptive behavior. Colton Ryan adds depth to a character that could have easily been portrayed as one-note.
Then, of course, there's Dever. Dever has a habit of showing up in films and turning into a highlight. The same is true here. While she's 24-years-old in real life, Dever has a natural youthfulness about her and easily portrays a high school student with soulfulness and complexity.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's Tony-winning score carries over, though there's some switching out of tunes that is mostly effective here. This is a soundtrack I'm still singing and it translates to the big screen quite nicely.
Unless you've truly found yourself in the world of mental health and struggling to survive it in a world that seems designed for sound byte social justice and faux awareness via meme, it's difficult to explain the messiness of it all and the glory of a film that lets it all be messy.
Dear Evan Hansen takes imperfect people and never makes them be perfect in order to be loved.
Maybe. Just maybe. Today's going to be an amazing day after all.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic