Dear Evan Hansen
The Tony-winning Broadway hit heads to the big screen, but can't overcome its questionable narrative and awkward lead performance.
December 09, 2021
Dear Dear Evan Hansen: don't. If a movie could write itself a letter like the eponymous figure in this stage-to-screen musical does, that's all any missive would need to communicate. It could elaborate, of course. It could caution against emoting to the back row, given that cinema is a subtler medium than theatre. It could advise against its firmly not-a-teenager lead Ben Platt, who won one of the Broadway hit's six Tony Awards, but may as well be uttering "how do you do, fellow kids?" on the big screen. It could warn against shooting the bulk of the feature like it's still on a stage, just with more close-ups. Mostly, though, any dispatch from any version of Dear Evan Hansen — treading the boards or flickering through a projector — should counsel against the coming-of-age tale's horrendously misguided milk-the-dead-guy narrative.
When the most interesting thing about a character is their proximity to someone that's died, that's rarely a great sign. It's the realm of heartstring-tugging illness weepies and romances where partners or parents are bereaved, sweeping love stories are shattered and families are forever altered, and it uses the sickness or death of another person purely as a prop to make someone that's alive and healthy seem more tragic. That's worlds away from engaging sincerely with confronting mortality, loss, grief or all three, as so few movies manage — although Babyteeth did superbly in 2020 — and it's mawkish, manipulative storytelling at its worst. Dear Evan Hansen gives the formula a twist, however, and not for the better. Here, after a classmate's suicide, the titular high schooler pretends he was his closest friend, including to the dead kid's family.
A anxious, isolated and bullied teen who returns from summer break with a fractured arm, Evan (Platt, The Politician) might be the last person to talk to Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan, one of the Broadway production's understudies). It isn't a pleasant chat, even if Connor signs Evan's cast — which no one else has or wants to. In the school library, Evan prints out a letter to himself as a therapy exercise, but Connor grabs it first, reads it, then gets furious because it mentions his sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, Dopesick). Cue days spent fretting on Evan's part, wondering if he'll see the text splashed across social media. Instead, he's soon sitting with Cynthia Murphy (Amy Adams, The Woman in the Window) and her husband Larry (Danny Pino, Fatale), who inform him of Connor's suicide — and that they found Evan's 'Dear Evan Hansen' note on him, and they're sure it's their son's last words.
With his high school misery amply established through catchy songs, and his yearning to connect as well, Evan opts to go along with the Murphys' mistaken belief, including the idea that he and Connor were secretly the best of pals. As penned for both theatre and film by Steven Levenson (Tick, Tick... Boom!) — with music and lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman) — this plot point is meant to play with awkwardness and longing, but it's simply monstrous. Indeed, the longer it goes on, with Evan spending more time with Connor's wealthy family than with his own mum Heidi (Julianne Moore, Lisey's Story), a nurse always working double shifts, the more ghastly it proves. It's lazy writing, too, because this isn't just a tale that defines its lead by their connection to a deceased person; it's about someone who intentionally makes that move themselves, then remains the recipient of all the movie's sympathies.
It'd be generous to wonder if Dear Evan Hansen feels more nuanced and earnest writ large on the stage — genuinely reckoning with Evan's actions, which see him become a viral sensation and inspiration, rather than merely excusing his lies because he's lonely, and also dismissing Connor as mostly angry and unliked. Or, if perhaps the theatre version highlights the potential dark comedy in such abhorrent choices being made by a teen that desperate to fit it and be found by others. Either way, it wouldn't change the movie's approach. Director Stephen Chbosky has a history with disaffected youth thanks to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which he adapted from his own novel. Via the same film, he also has form with oversimplifying details to evoke strong emotional reactions. That's Dear Evan Hansen all over, no matter how unconvincingly it tries to be an uplifting tale of self-acceptance.
Platt's casting doesn't help; he played a college student almost a decade ago in Pitch Perfect, and was never going to pass for a high schooler under a camera's gaze, especially with such emphatic and mannered overacting. He's inescapably forceful, appears to think he's still in a theatre and really just resembles an adult satirising teens. While Dear Evan Hansen sings heartfelt ballads about sociopathic behaviour, and bakes cognitive dissonance deep into its frames as a result, it'd be far too magnanimous to see Platt's performance as a response to the musical's many thematic and tonal mismatches. His co-stars can't save the film, but they surround him with far better work — especially from the reliably impressive Dever, plus Adams and Moore making the most of their thin parts, and also Amandla Stenberg (The Eddy) as one of Evan's high-achieving but also struggling classmates.
Those standout supporting performances illustrate one of the movie's most unfortunate traits, apart from the story it's working with: its constant and incessant self-sabotage. Among the cast and the film's aesthetic choices, there's occasionally enough that hits its marks, but that can't balance out everything that doesn't. The fluid and kinetic camerawork busted out for early number 'Sincerely, Me' delivers another prime example, noticeably contrasting with the feature's otherwise static look and mood — only for the latter to return once it's done. Of course, lively cinematography and choreography could never overcome Dear Evan Hansen's questionable narrative and wildly misplaced sentiments, or its misfire of a central portrayal, but so many of the picture's choices feel like it's writing hate mail to itself.