THere are two big problems that Dear Evan Hansen, the film adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical, cannot overcome. First, the decision to have Ben Platt repeat his Tony-winning performance as Evan Hansen in the film, the only original actor to do so. (It seems relevant to mention that Platt’s dad is a producer on the film; as Platt said in defense of the casting earlier this year, “If I didn’t make the film, it probably wouldn’t get made.”) It was a thing for the filmmakers for asking the audience to give up the disbelief that the 27-year-old Platt was actually a geeky high school graduate – a little annoying, but okay as almost every teen movie requires it anyway (see: Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, Jesse Metcalfe in John Tucker Must Die, both in their late twenties). But the team behind Dear Evan Hansen put Platt in prostheses and opaque, pasty make-up, along with a curly head of hair that highlights the actor firmly in the eerie valley. But trying to make Platt appear younger somehow makes him older and inhuman – an act of near-sabotage that is so distracting that it basically makes the film irretrievable.
Which is a shame because if there were to be a film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, this version, directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) based on a script by musical writer Steven Levenson, would probably have the main casting aside, one of the better versions . With Chbosky’s ingenious direction, the show’s winning (if abbreviated in the film) soundtrack, and a host of A-list talent – Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg – the Dear Evan Hansen film is by and large one good faith, meticulous adaptation of the Broadway show. Which leads to the second insurmountable hurdle: A film adaptation by Dear Evan Hansen only throws a sharper light on the already shaky handling of the story with suicide and mental health.
To back down: Evan Hansen is a socially awkward, paralyzing, insecure 17-year-old who begins his first day of senior year with a written encouragement interview with himself, an assignment from this therapist. The note is intercepted by the printer by classmate Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), an outcast who interprets the mention of his sister Zoey (Dever), Evans crush, in the letter as a ploy to mock him. This is Evans and Connor’s only real-life interaction; Connor takes his own life and is found with the letter, which his parents interpret as a farewell letter to Evan. Stammered, desperate to please, and felt valued, Evan translates the theory into a full-fledged fantasy of friendship – one that pulls him into one that makes him popular with Connor’s horrified mother, Cynthia (Adams) and stepfather Larry (Danny Pino) romantic relationship with Zoey and distancing him from his overworked single mother Heidi (Moore). It also brings reassurance when his false conjuration of Connor’s memory goes viral and diehard classmate Alana (Stenberg) creates a mental health awareness campaign around one of Evans’ fake anecdotes.
The distance of the stage and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s enveloping, truly moving soundtrack enabled the dark, borderline creepy elements of the musical – suggesting that Connor’s death is responsible, Evan’s reincarnation of Connor through fake emails, the fact that the The protagonist exploits the suicide of a close stranger for popularity – to take the backseat of a great show. One can overturn the moral judgment of Evan, the sympathetic outsider, when his motivations, awkwardness, and mistakes are routinely washed into a gripping song. This is much harder when you hyper-definition close-up staring into the face of the grieving mother, played by Adams with gossamer fragility while Evan lies about his friendship with her dead son.
Still, if you can put the discomfort of Evans cheating and Platt’s creepy looks aside, Dear Evan Hansen is a decently entertaining film musical, especially if you like the soundtrack that stays magnetic. Chbosky’s direction establishes some of the potentially tricky aspects of adapting a musical to the film – characters blaring during school or long, searching solos, like Dever singing about her lack of feelings about Connor’s death while looking at a red light is heading. The moving camera and interjections for Sincerely Me made for real laughs, as did some of the lines Nik Dodani had delivered as Jared, Evan’s only friend (and a “family friend” at that). The set is convincingly a mid-2010s suburban high school, the Murphy’s cuisine is believably rich throughout McMansion. As lovable in Booksmart and heartbreaking as an incredulous sexual assault survivor in Unbelievable, Dever is brimming with vulnerability and frustration as Zoey, the film’s most down-to-earth character.
It’s not the movie’s fault that the medium highlights the story’s inherent stacking of decks in favor of Evan with a disgust the musical might avoid. I can’t say the same thing about the cast of Platt as Evan. The film asks the audience not to look at two elephants in the room, and unfortunately, no matter how soaring music, can take this heavy load off.