Producers: Marc Platt and Adam Siegel Director: Stephen Chbosky Screenplay: Steven Levenson Cast: Ben Platt, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan and Danny Pino Distributor: Universal Pictures
When “Dear Evan Hansen” opened on Broadway in 2016 as a transfer from off-Broadway, it was greeted with almost universal acclaim as a piercing portrait of teen distress, though there were, to be fair, a few dissenting voices. Five years later, it’s been turned into, as they used to say, a major motion picture, with the score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul only mildly abbreviated and a faithful screenplay by Steven Levenson, who wrote the original book. It also stars Ben Platt, who won rapturous reviews in the title role in New York.
How five years have changed things. In its new form “Dear Evan Hansen” seems like little more than a musical afterschool special given the prestige treatment, a teen tearjerker that’s unnerving for all the wrong reasons.
What went wrong? The fact that Platt is now a twenty-seven year old man playing a seventeen-year old boy may be part of the problem, though the actors playing his classmates aren’t appreciably younger. There’s a change of director, but Stephen Chbosky made “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” one of the better picture of its kind. (To be fair, his second feature, “Wonder,” was a disappointment.) Or perhaps the different medium is simply unkind to the material.
Or perhaps it’s just that on reflection we can realize that the musical’s level of manipulation is heavy, that its treatment of mental disorder is shallow, and that the title character is not so much a sympathetic outsider as a user. Of course his misconduct is the result of misunderstanding, not cruelty, but in the end it’s his suffering that takes center-stage, even though it’s he who does the hurting, however unintentionally.
Evan is an outsider at school, a social misfit who’s preternaturally shy and in therapy. (His diagnosis is never specified.) He has only one sort-of friend, wisecracking Jared (Nik Dodani). He lives with his mom Heidi (Julianne Moore), a nurse who works long hours, is frequently out of the house, and prods her son to do as the therapist recommends, which includes writing encouraging letters to himself, which he simply signs “Me.” He’s also infatuated with classmate Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever), though he’s never had the courage to speak to her.
One of his letters falls into the hands of another outsider on campus, Zoe’s brother Connor (Colton Ryan), a surly, volatile guy who dresses in black and is mistreated by the jocks but doesn’t really look Colombine-ish. Connor writes his name on the cast Evan’s wearing after breaking his arm in a fall from a tree and then commits suicide, the letter in his pocket.
Connor’s grieving mother (Amy Adams) and stepfather (Danny Pino) find Evan’s self-letter and assume the two boys were close friends. Evan’s uncomfortable about it, but goes along with the fantasy, eventually convincing even initially skeptical Zoe it’s true. And he falls in with the plan of activist classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) to establish a club named after Connor to promote suicide prevention, giving a speech in memory of his imaginary friend that goes viral.
Needless to say, the lie eventually falls apart, leaving Evan crushed when public opinion turns against the Murphys even as the long-simmering rift between him and Heidi breaks into the open. He’ll need to make amends as best he can.
For a musical, “Dear Evan Hansen” has an awful lot of dialogue; with minor adjustments, it might have been told as a straight drama. That would not have been a great loss, as the songs are, for the most part, maudlin dirges with lyrics that are often banal and music that, typically of shows nowadays, consists of the same melodic lines repeated over and over again.
Still, it’s reasonably well presented, especially by Platt, who has the range to make his many solos work. Otherwise his performance feels rather exaggerated; every tic and squirm is multiplied. On the stage such mannerism is needed to reach the furthest regions of the orchestra, but on screen it should have been toned down a bit.
Perhaps the problem is with Chbosky’s direction, since even Adams and Moore lack the subtlety of which they’re capable. The rest of the cast are fine—with Dodani standing out for providing the script’s rare glimmers of humor—but no one really excels.
Technically the film is first-class. Beth Mikle’s production design and Skekinah Brown’s costumes are excellent, and Brandon Tost’s cinematography is classy, even when Anne McCabe’s cut gives itself over too frequently to slo-mo flashbacks and montages emphasizing the ubiquity of the computer and phone screens that constitute communication among highschoolers. (The device can be compared to the telephone gags in “Bye Bye Birdie” decades ago, except that there it was funny instead of morose.)
“Dear Evan Hansen” means well, and for some it may prove a profoundly moving—perhaps even life-altering—experience. But it might have been better had it stayed on the boards, because it’s problematic on screen.