Exploring mental health and social media in musical 'Dear Evan Hansen'

08 Oct 2021 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

5 mins
Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen

Adapted from the acclaimed stage musical, Dear Evan Hansen is a coming-of-age film which captures the feeling of growing up in the modern day, with key themes around mental health and social media.

On the outside always lookin' in / will I ever be more than I've always been?

Evan, 'Waving Through a Window'

Evan Hansen is a teenager who takes medication for his social anxiety. He writes letters to himself describing his feelings, as suggested by his therapist, but when one of these is confiscated by his outcast classmate - a volatile boy named Connor Murphy - Evan worries about what he'll do with it. But the news he receives the next day is even more shocking: Connor has taken his own life, and the letter has been mistaken for a suicide note by Connor's parents. Incorrectly assumed to be Connor's best and only friend, Evan is either not able or willing to break their hearts any further, first failing to correct the lie, before voluntarily going along with it. So when his speech at Connor's school memorial service goes viral on social media, things start to spiral out of control for Evan.

Keep on keeping secrets that they think they have to hide / what if everybody's secret is they have that secret side?

Alana, 'The Anonymous Ones'

Mental health is at the front and centre of this story. This is most notably through the character of Connor and his actions, with those around him wondering if they could have done more to help him when he was alive, but there are others with their own mental health struggles. Evan doesn't eat one night because he's so afraid of social interactions with strangers that even ordering food online proves difficult because he'd have to pay the delivery driver in-person. Alana, his classmate who helps Evan set up The Connor Project, a memorial in Connor's honour, reveals to him that she takes medication too. This surprises Evan as she is so outgoing and confident, but Alana reminds him that what we see on the outside and what we feel on the inside don't always match up. We also see Connor's family - his parents and sister - experience their own mental anguish after his death, though they each grieve in their own way.

After all you put me through / don't say it wasn't true / that you were not the monster / that I knew?

Zoe, 'Requiem'

Zoe, Connor's sister, struggles to cope with his new image of her brother that she's presented with through Evan's fake memories. Zoe did not like her brother, and as the story develops we learn more about why that is. During an early scene in which Connor screams at Evan in the school hallway, Zoe apologises for her "psychopath" sibling. But unlike everyone else around her, who retract the harsh words they had for Connor, Zoe's perspective does not change after his death, even around her grieving family. While she is perhaps not as sensitive as she could be towards her parents, Zoe might argue that others are similarly lacking in understanding of her feelings. Dear Evan Hansen is a film that poses questions which don't have easy answers.

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.

Evan, 'You Will Be Found'

Another of the film's key themes is social media. Far from moralising about the perils or downsides, the film simply presents modern technology in all its glory: both the positives and negatives, although the bad and insensitive behaviour isn't just limited to the online space. After Evan's speech goes viral, his lie veers wildly out of his control with so many more eyes on the story. But before things take a sour turn, we witness the upside of social media: how it brings people together, gives them a voice and a platform, gives them hope and positivity, and fosters a community spirit.

That's not a worthy explanation / I know there is none / nothing can make sense of all these things I've done.

Evan, 'Words Fail'

The film also offers much in the way of discussion points around ethics and morality. There are a number of questionable decisions made in the film which will stimulate further conversation and debate among young audiences. By doing so in an accessible way - with an all-star cast and memorable songs - the filmmakers have ensured Dear Evan Hansen will be a talking point for a long time to come.

You can watch our exclusive Q&A with director Stephen Chbosky, actor Nik Dodani, and mental health expert Jane Caro, moderated by political campaigner Gina Martin.

There are also Into Film Festival screenings of Dear Evan Hansen taking place around the UK in November. Check availability and book here.

We have produced a film guide to accompany screenings of the film which you can download for further discussion and activity ideas.

Dear Evan Hansen is in UK cinemas from Friday 22 October.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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