By Nils Skudra
One of the most compelling musical films that relates to neurodiversity and social anxiety is Dear Evan Hansen, a 2021 adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical about an isolated high school senior who becomes the motivational force behind a campaign for mental health awareness following the suicide of a fellow student.
Directed by Stephen Chbosky, this powerful film resonates on a wide variety of levels, addressing themes such as social isolation, teen suicide, and mental health. These issues have become especially relevant amid the COVID-19 pandemic since it has generated a widespread sense of anxiety and isolation throughout our society, which has contributed significantly to the increased rate of suicide. Considering this, I believe that Dear Evan Hansen will have a strong appeal across a wide spectrum of viewers.
The film opens with Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) composing a letter to himself as part of an assignment given by his therapist: “Dear Evan Hansen: Today is going to be an amazing day and here’s why. Because, today, all you have to do is be yourself. But also confident. That’s important. And interesting. Easy to talk to. Approachable. But mostly be yourself. That’s the big, that’s number one. Be yourself. Be true to yourself.” This letter demonstrates that Evan struggles with severe social anxiety, which he wishes to overcome by adopting a more confident demeanor and making new friends. In the subsequent song, “Waving Through a Window,” he elaborates further upon this sense of loneliness combined with a desire for recognition:
On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?
‘Cause I’m tap, tap, tapping on the glass
I’m waving through a window
I try to speak, but nobody can hear
So I wait around for an answer to appear
While I’m watch, watch, watching people pass
I’m waving through a window, oh
Can anybody see, is anybody waving back at me?
This sentiment is something that a wide variety of people, both neurotypical and neurodiverse, can relate to since high school can be an especially challenging environment to try to fit in. For individuals with autism or social anxiety, this can be particularly difficult because of their problems with social cues and the ostracism that they frequently encounter. While Evan has one friend, Jared (Nik Dodani), at the high school, he is too timid to reach out to other students, and even in Jared’s company his anxious tendencies often have an alienating effect on their interaction. For example, when Jared suggests that Evan approach Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever), a girl whom he has a crush on, Evan launches into an extended monologue about how he could not bring himself to talk to her on a previous occasion because of his nervousness about having sweaty hands, which prompts Jared to remark, “I was just kidding. You really should not talk to her. You are a literal disaster.”
Following the opening of the school day, Evan is organizing his locker when he observes some senior athletes making derisive remarks toward Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), Zoe’s brother, who shares Evan’s issues of depression and social isolation. While this incident leads Evan to find some sense of commonality with Connor, his nervous chuckling prompts Connor to belligerently confront him, screaming in Evan’s face, “You think that’s funny? Then STOP LAUGHING!” Although Zoe comes up to apologize for her brother’s behavior, Evan suffers an anxiety attack because of the episode and flees to the bathroom to take his medication.
Later, he encounters Connor again in the school library, where Connor adopts a friendlier demeanor and signs the cast on Evan’s left arm, stating, “Now we can both pretend we have friends.” However, when Connor looks at Evan’s letter and reads the reference to Zoe, his anger issues quickly resurface, as he accuses Evan of deliberately writing about his sister with the intent of posting it online and humiliating Connor. He promptly storms out with Evan’s letter and shoves him to the floor when Evan tries to take it back.
Later that night, Evan looks up Connor on the Internet to determine whether he has posted his letter online, but he finds no social media posts featuring the letter. However, three days later, Evan is called into the principal’s office, where he is told that Connor’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), would like to speak with him privately. Upon meeting them, Evan is shocked to learn that Connor has committed suicide and that his parents discovered the letter he had taken from Evan. Cynthia Murphy assumes that Connor had written this letter to Evan, indicating that Evan was Connor’s only friend, and says that Connor wanted Evan to have the letter. Although Evan feebly protests that Connor didn’t write the letter, Connor’s stepfather Larry takes this reply as a sign of Evan’s distress, and Cynthia’s observation of her son’s signature on Evan’s cast reinforces her impression that the two were close friends. Consequently, they invite Evan for dinner at their home, which leaves him deeply unsettled since he is unsure of how to tell them the truth.
When Evan arrives at the Murphy’s home, he is greeted by Zoe, who seems to be the only family member showing no signs of grief for the loss of her brother, as she argues that he was a horrible person who terrorized her and was frequently in rehab. Cynthia insists that Connor was a complicated son with issues and that there were some good times with him, asking Evan if he can recall any of the fun occasions that he had with Connor.
Although Evan’s initial intention was to tell the truth, this question places him on the spot, prompting him to nervously start singing “For Forever,” in which he presents an idyllic picture of their supposed friendship, reinforced by the details that Connor’s family provides about the places Connor liked to visit. Although Evan’s story is a complete fabrication, in many ways it expresses his desire for a close friend and his idea of what that friendship would look like, and it has the effect of bringing a sense of comfort to Connor’s family. Cynthia therefore asks him to send her the email correspondence that he shared with Connor, which Jared helps Evan to create.
As Evan provides Connor’s family with the fake correspondence, it challenges them to confront the different ways in which they are coping with his loss, poignantly expressed in the song “Requiem.” While Cynthia is deeply moved by the idea that Connor had a close friend to confide in, Larry cannot bear the thought of Connor throwing away his life of privilege and leaving the family broken. Zoe, meanwhile, cannot bring herself to reconcile her memories of a violent and unstable brother with the idyllic portrait presented in Evan’s fake emails:
“Why should I say I’ll keep you with me?
Why should I go and fall apart for you?
Why should I play the grieving girl and lie
Saying that I miss you
And that my world has gone dark without your light?
(I can see your light)
I will sing no requiem
‘Cause when the villains fall, the kingdoms never weep
No one lights a candle to remember
No, no one mourns at all
When they lay them down to sleep
So, don’t tell me that I didn’t have it right
Don’t tell me that it wasn’t black and white
After all you put me through
Don’t say it wasn’t true
That you were not the monster
That I knew”
As Evan grows closer to the Murphy family, he forms a romantic attachment to Zoe, expressing his feelings for her by recounting Connor’s alleged sentiments that he never shared with his sister. He also forms a friendship with Alana Beck (Amandla Stenberg), the outgoing student president, who invites him to attend the memorial being held for Connor. She quickly deduces that he takes medication for his depression and anxiety, revealing that she takes some of these same prescriptions. This comes as a surprise to Evan since Alana has always maintained a confident and extroverted exterior in her role as student president, leading her to sing “The Anonymous Ones” in which she elaborates:
“Spot the girl who stays in motion
She spins so fast so she won’t fall
She’s built a wall with her achievements
To keep out the question
“Without it, is she worth anything at all?”
So nobody can know
Just what the cracks might show
How deep and dark they go
They are those anonymous ones
Stuck inside the perfect frame they’re faking
All of us anonymous ones
Who pick themselves apart ’til they start breaking
And we keep on keeping secrets that we think we have to hide
But what we really need is somebody to see that secret side
And to know we’re somehow not alone
Is all we’re hoping for
And that we wouldn’t have to be
This song provides a profound insight into how different individuals cope with mental health issues.
While some can mask their symptoms by presenting an external image of confidence and success, they still struggle in private with problems of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Others, by contrast, manifest their symptoms in more overt ways that they cannot mask, marking them out as people who don’t fit in. This leads Evan to develop a new and broader understanding of the mental health challenges that plague millions of teens like him, and his subsequent speech at the memorial inspires a mental health awareness campaign that brings Evan the recognition and admiration that he has been seeking from his peers. Nonetheless, the knowledge that his success has been built upon a fabricated story eventually forces Evan to confront the truth and the consequences it will have for him and for his relationship with Connor’s family.
In so many ways, Dear Evan Hansen is a captivating film that features powerful songs and stellar performances.
Ben Platt delivers a superb performance in the role of Evan, truly embodying the character and capturing his idiosyncrasies and desire for recognition and affection. In addition, the film addresses numerous issues that are highly pertinent today, particularly the challenges of mental health, social isolation, and teen suicide. Given the dramatic increase in the rate of teen suicide in the years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has recently been a renewed effort on the part of educators and documentary filmmakers to highlight the mental health issues that often lead to suicide, in the hope that promoting mental health awareness will inspire families to provide greater emotional support for their loved ones.
By watching Dear Evan Hansen, viewers can hopefully take away the inspirational message that no one is alone and that through affection and solidarity, people with mental health challenges can thrive and enjoy a successful social life in which they are accepted by their peers and family members.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.