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Broadway Hit ‘Dear Evan Hansen' Brings Mental Health to the Big Screen

The 2017 Tony-winning Best Musical that tackles mental health — “Dear Evan Hansen” — is coming to the silver screen in September. The movie adaptation will feature Ben Platt, the actor who originated the titular role on Broadway, and won a Tony, an Emmy and Grammy for his performance.

The film follows a high school senior named Evan Hansen as he struggles with social anxiety, seeing a therapist who recommends he write letters to himself, essentially dispatches of gratitude his doctor believes will help him cope.

When he breaks his arm, a lonely Evan feels like no one wants to sign his cast. That’s when a peer named Connor Murphy steps up to sign it.

Like many of us, Evan feels like he is an awkward outcast at school, writing a letter posing the question of what would happen if he didn’t exist.

Connor manages to get his hands on a printout of the letter and reads it, stashing it in his pocket. Connor soon after dies by suicide and his parents find Evan’s letter, believing it is some kind of would-be suicide note and the last communication — addressed to Evan — before his death.

Evan bluffs about the letter, hoodwinking Connor’s parents into thinking it was indeed written by Connor to Evan, and that they were best friends. Previously Connor’s parents had thought that he had no friends.

Perpetuating the lie and to appease Connor’s parents, Evan than decides to create a fake secret email account with a cache of exchanges between him and Connor.

When Evan speaks at Connor’s memorial service, a video of his speech goes viral. Evan eventually decides to fess up about the situation with the letter and emails, and the story continues from there.

Like many depictions of mental health, the theater production and the filmmakers have a conundrum. Do they really understand the mental conditions they’re portraying or merely telling an interesting story? 

There is a controversy surrounding “Dear Evan Hansen” the movie as there was for the play. Some critics believe it should carry a trigger warning for suicide, anxiety and depression. And then others have wondered whether the story truly captures these themes accurately.

Parents were up in arms about the popular Netflix drama “13 Reasons Why,” which portrays teen suicide as well as sexual assault. In its first season, it lacked a trigger warning or mention of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — it’s 800-273-8255 by the way.

Should the film version of “Dear Evan Hansen” have such a trigger warning? Possibly. Will the studio be smart enough to include one? That remains to be seen.

Over on reddit/Broadway, a user writes before attending the performance, “As someone who has recently attempted suicide (and I know that shows/movies/media about suicide are triggering for me), do you think I should avoid this musical? I’m supposed to go see it tonight… but I don’t want to throw myself into a depressive funk.” Later the theatergoer writes: “I shouldn’t have gone. It was really good but definitely too much.” 

Slate article titles itself with the cheeky headline “Dear Evan Hansen, You Are a Creep.” In writing about the Broadway show The New Yorker notes Evan’s “greed for popularity” calling him “that punk you knew in school who would do anything to succeed, especially when it came to telling people what they wanted to hear… adept at bullying and rejecting.”

Other reports online have called “Dear Evan Hansen” a “half-baked portrait of teenage mental health” that shares a “harmful message.” The character of Evan is a liar and people with social anxiety aren’t all manipulative.

On the trivial end of the spectrum, Broadway fave Ben Platt who reprises his role in the film is being criticized because of his age. The 27 year-old playing a high school senior has been deemed implausible by some because he no longer looks the age of a high schooler. The actor has responded saying that characters in the movie musical “Grease” were in their 20s and even early 30s. 

The film “Dear Evan Hansen” is due out Sept. 24.

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