Dear Evan Hansen will hit theaters on Sept. 24.
In the film version of Dear Evan Hansen, Ben Platt’s face is a problem. From his first close-up, his is undeniably one of a full-grown man, who has been comically miscast as a sheepish teen boy. No slouched shoulders or downcast eyes can hide that. Sure, Platt originated the role of the titular teen when the coming-of-age musical — and his portrayal — won scads of accolades on Broadway. All the same, allowing him to reprise the role in the movie is not just a major misstep, but the most glaring mistake of director Stephen Chbosky’s wonky adaptation.
The plot of Dear Evan Hansen feels like something out of Riverdale, audacious and disturbing with heavy doses of teen angst, hot button issues, musical numbers, and dysfunctional family drama playing out in a posh home. Even still, this movie can’t hold a candle to that outrageous series’ sense of style.
In an unremarkable high school in Maryland, Evan Hansen (Platt) is a wallflower unnoticed by everyone. That is until a strange twist of fate — after a classmate’s death by suicide — makes him the unexpected center of attention. A misunderstanding leads the Murphy family to believe that Evan was the secret best friend of their recently deceased son, Connor (Colton Ryan). Panicked but also desperate to be a part of the world of this affluent, effusive family — that happens to include his secret crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) — Evan lies, spinning more and more elaborate stories of this fictional friendship. Between these grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), their wounded daughter, and the lonely boy, a fragile bond blossoms. But as Evan’s story goes viral, their shady solace is threatened.
This melodramatic premise is enhanced by the stage show’s songs, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. What Evan can’t dare say to the world, he expresses through belted ballads about his choking loneliness and unspoken infatuation for Zoe. Similarly, the Murphy family’s private forms of mourning are displayed through a three-part “Requiem.” Yet, the most powerful songs are those that speak most directly to struggles with mental illness. From the original Broadway Cast Recording, “You Will Be Found” is a showstopper, literally spotlighting Evan so he can sing about how hard it is to be alone in the darkness and the importance of community. Then, Pasek and Paul created two new tracks for the movie (“A Little Closer” and “Anonymous Ones”) that wisely give voice to the struggle of other characters, adding new depth and smart opportunities to allow the film’s other stars to shine.
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In his numbers, Platt’s performance is Broadway big and bold. He’s got a gorgeous voice, but his force feels awkward in the mundane setting that Chbosky has created. In his previous film, Perks of Being a Wallflower (based on his novel), Chbosky effectively presented a sense of the energy and uniqueness of Pittsburgh and the dizzying high school that intimidated and enchanted his troubled hero. In Dear Evan Hansen, the town, high school, houses, and a much-talked-about apple orchard are achingly generic, captured in uninspired cinematography and painted in muted hues. Within dull grey walls, the showmanship of Platt’s singing feels out of nowhere. Perhaps if his hometown was special in any way, then Platt’s spectacular singing would show that Evan fits in more than he thinks. But as is, Evan is right to feel out of place.
Even when Platt is not singing, he seems on stage. His performance of youth is made up of practiced awkwardness. Every twitch and shrug looks rehearsed, as if Platt can’t shake the routine worn in from eight shows a week. Notably, he’s the only Broadway cast member that has been brought in for the movie. Sadly, amid a cast of much stronger screen actors, he is not a strength but a relic.
Co-stars Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Colton Ryan, and Nik Dodani are also twenty-somethings playing teens. They look more baby-faced, which helps. But more importantly, their performances feel grounded, not like they’re playing to the cheap seats. Dever, who has wowed in Booksmart, Justified, and Unbelievable, is riveting as a girl filled with rage, pain, and a glimmering hope for healing. Though playing an underwritten wise-cracking sidekick, Dodani proves a scene-stealer with sharp comedic timing and easy charm. As mysterious Connor, Ryan first radiates an unsettling fury. Then in song numbers (one in flashback, one a fantasy), he shows a softer and even sillier side that could make this part his breakthrough. Yet Stenberg proves the standout, taking a flimsy role of the seemingly perfect student and bolstering it with nuance, charm, and a soulful new song, “The Anonymous Ones.” Opposite Platt, she doesn’t just dazzle, she schools him on how to play a complicated yet compelling teen onscreen. Then, there’s Julianne Moore, coming to blow all of these youngsters out of the water.
Chbosky had the incredible gift of landing Amy Adams and Moore in dueling mom roles. Adams is reliably riveting, but Moore takes her only song and turns it into a soul-rattling monologue. For much of the movie, she’s given cliched working-mom schtick, desperately chasing her troubled son for any insights into his life or mind. It’s such a thankless series of scenes that I wondered why Moore bothered to sign on. But then comes “So Big / So Small,” in which Evan’s mom sings to him and Moore sinks her teeth into the moment suitable for a Best Actress clip. She is a true-blue movie star, and Platt pales in comparison.
Platt performs youth earnestly but unconvincingly. This is a huge problem, because without the constant reminder that Evan is young and thereby deeply naïve, the character comes off as heinously selfish. Sure, it’s understandable how he stumbles into this tricky scenario. However, as his doubling down grows darker and more disturbing, a close-up of a grown man with a furrowed brow and bit lip doesn’t soften the sharp turns of this troubling plotline. Admittedly, those who loved the Broadway show will likely look with kinder eyes on this reckless reprisal, but the suspension of disbelief audiences offer between stage and screen varies greatly. Simply put, Platt sabotages the film.