Is Evan Hansen a sociopath? Or is everyone around him?

‘You will be found’, as the song goes – except if your name happens to be Evan Hansen, writes Clémence Michallon

Tuesday 19 October 2021 17:23
<p>Ben Platt and Julianne Moore in ‘Dear Evan Hansen'</p>

Ben Platt and Julianne Moore in ‘Dear Evan Hansen'

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Evan Hansen is in a world of trouble. From the first few minutes of Dear Evan Hansen – both the stage musical and its newly released film adaptation – Evan, a high school student with an already shaky grasp on his existence, watches as life slips between his fingers.

It begins when his classmate Connor dies by suicide. Because of a series of misunderstandings, Connor’s parents end up under the impression that Evan was Connor’s best friend. Connor’s mother Cynthia (portrayed by Amy Adams in the movie version) needs to believe in that alternate reality perhaps most vividly, but so do Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) and his stepfather Larry (Danny Pino). So Evan lies. He leans into the narrative of his fictional friendship with Connor with increasing gusto. And he gets away with it, until he doesn’t.

Evan’s lies have been a topic of controversy in the Dear Evan Hansen sphere for some time. They have been debated with renewed energy following the film’s release, first in the US and now in the UK. “Is what Evan did unforgivable?” asks one Reddit board. Many have answered that question with a resounding “yes”. Evan is a sociopath, think pieces and reviews tell us. His behaviour is so outlandish as to weigh too heavily on the plot, some have argued. To which I say: shall we perhaps give this fictional teenager a break?

Chastising Evan doesn’t make sense within the film, and it doesn’t make sense in the discourse surrounding it. It is made clear, from the very beginning, that Evan doesn’t want to lie. He does it because Connor’s family, particularly his mother, need to believe in a reality in which their son/brother wasn’t completely isolated prior to his death. They want to believe he had a best friend who knew him better than anyone else did, and who can share with them bits of Connor they didn’t know about.

This is brought to life in a bittersweet, at times funny manner on screen. Making up a friendship with your dead classmate is a frankly weird thing to do, and the movie doesn’t shy away from that. In those moments, Ben Platt is able to infuse a tongue-in-cheek, almost slapstick quality to his performance, giving those scenes a much-needed dose of self-awareness.

Dear Evan Hansen: Waving Through A Window

So no one is saying that what Evan is doing is normal, or even expected. But for the majority of the movie, his lying is a victimless crime. If anything, it helps Connor’s relatives on their road to grieving. His classmates bond with one another over the loss of Connor, trying to honour his legacy. If anything, the fact that their actions happen in response to Evan’s lies gives the film an extra edge: good intentions can be misguided, or awkward, or misplaced, but at the end of the day, does that mean we should shy away from them? Or are we better off trying – to do good, to be good – even if we might look slightly like fools at some points in the process?

These are questions worth asking, and when it focuses on those, the film holds up. But here’s where it runs into trouble. Spoiler alert (no, for real): Evan’s lies eventually catch up with him. From this moment on, he is essentially alone. Connor’s sister, with whom Evan had started a romantic relationship, doesn’t want anything to do with him (which, you know, fair enough). Connor’s family turns on him, too (ditto). But crucially, all the kids at school – the ones who spent one musical-sized movie singing about the importance of caring for one another, and supporting loved ones through mental health crises? They turn their collective back on him.

This doesn’t entirely make sense, especially when it’s revealed that Evan made an attempt to end his own life, too, before the events depicted in the film. (That cast he wears at the beginning of the movie? The one mending his broken wrist? That’s a direct result of that incident.) Evan’s classmates don’t necessarily know that, but we do. As does the movie. The same movie (deriving from the same musical) that has told us since the play’s infancy in 2015 that “Even when the dark comes crashing through/ When you need a friend to carry you/ And when you’re broken on the ground/ You will be found.” Unless your name is Evan Hansen, apparently. Then you will be gently told, in so many words, to f*** off.

Of course, there is something cuttingly realistic about the fact that the same people who spent hours grandstanding about being there for one another fail to live up to their own pledges when Evan’s turn comes. Perhaps this is the deepest truth Dear Evan Hansen has to offer. Perhaps this isn’t a story about big feelings and solidarity. Broadway plays have a wholesome feel to them that magnified that aspect of the story – the well-intentioned, extremely genuine aspect of it. Perhaps Dear Evan Hansen always had a darker heart, and we’re only now seeing it.

Dear Evan Hansen is out in the UK on 22 October

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