The path to the big screen hasn't been an easy one for "Dear Evan Hansen," a film adaptation of the 2015 stage show by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The first trailer for this coming-of-age movie musical dropped back in May, and it only took a viral tweet or two for the film to become a social media punching bag. Much of the criticism centered around the choice to have Ben Platt reprise his Tony-winning role as the titular teen.
Those not regularly in tune with what's "trending" may wonder what's the problem? In a nutshell, Platt is a 27-year-old who looks like he could be in his early 30s but is playing a 17-year-old high school student. At first glance it's nothing new for actors in their 20s to play teenagers (see Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield's turns as Peter Parker, Sissy Spacek in "Carrie," practically the entire cast of "Grease"). There were also cries that Platt's casting reeked of nepotism considering the film is produced by his father, Marc Platt.
Let's be honest, social media outrage isn't the most reliable gauge. Here it's hard to shout nepotism with certainty considering this is a role Platt has spent years defining and making his own. The age thing is a little different. Platt as a 17-year-old is a hard sell and slapping on pasty makeup and a plump crop of curly hair doesn't help. But neither of those things are what makes "Dear Evan Hansen" a woefully misguided misfire. Its problems run a lot deeper.
It should be said that director Stephen Chbosky and screenwriter Steven Levenson (working from his own Tony Award-winning book) approach their sensitive subject matter with the sincerest of intentions. Their hearts are genuinely in the right place. But any efforts to spark meaningful dialogue is squelched by a number of head-scratching missteps and glaring overreaches.
The story kicks off with Platt's Evan set to begin his senior year of high school. To help with his crippling anxiety, Evan's therapist recommends that he start each day by writing a motivational letter to himself. "Dear Evan Hansen," the letters begin. "Today's going to be an amazing day and here's why."
The movie's portrayal of mental health is hazy at best. Look no further than Evan himself, who early on isn't just socially awkward but almost nonfunctional. His inability to muster a single sentence to anyone other than his jerk of a "family friend" Jared (Nik Dodani) hints at severe social anxiety. His several prescriptions point to depression. We even see evidence of possible autism. And then there is his childlike body language that comes across as paralyzing insecurity mixed with Platt's exaggerated attempts to look younger.
The queasier stuff comes after his letter to himself is swiped by a bully and fellow outcast named Connor (Colton Ryan). A few days later Evan is summoned to the principal's office where Connor's parents, (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), inform him that their troubled son had committed suicide and they found Evan's letter with him. Mistaking the "Dear Evan Hansen" letter as being from their son, the Murphy's take comfort in knowing Connor had a close friend.
For a brief moment Evan tries to correct the grieving couple's misunderstanding. But desperate for human connection and with a particularly icky crush on Connor's sister Zoe (a terrific Kaitlyn Dever), Evan turns the confusion into a full-blown deception. Soon his lie takes on a life of its own as word of his fictional friendship gains him sympathy from his classmates. And after his speech/song at a school memorial service goes viral, Evan becomes a social media sensation.
The more devilish part of Evan's ruse is in his scenes with the Murphys. At first he doesn't have the heart to tell them the truth about their son. But he relishes their attention, the kind he doesn't get at home from his hard-working and rarely present single mother (Julianne Moore). So he ingratiates himself with the family through bigger and more elaborate lies. Even worse is Evan's manipulation of Zoe which makes him look like a creep despite the film's efforts to paint him otherwise.
Sprinkled in among all the weird and unsavory drama is a mixed bag of pop ballads. Not one is great, but among the better songs is the peppy opener "Waving Through a Window," the mournful "Requiem," and the crowd-pleasing "You Will Be Found." But the bulk of everything else is both dull and cringey with a couple of songs even crossing the bounds of taste.
You don't have to look hard to see what "Dear Evan Hansen" wants to be. You also don't have to look hard to see the many ways it misses its mark. Some of its choices are baffling, such as the film's willingness to use suicide as a plot device to move Evan's story forward. Also the questionable ways it attempts to justify Evan's deceit. And who thought stretching the run time to 137 minutes was a good idea?
It all might work better if it was actually leading to something meatier. Instead the movie concludes with a toothless reckoning that ends up far tidier than it should. It only adds to the film's nagging artificiality and makes the already shaky moral center even harder to digest.
Keith Garlington is a film critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Keith & the Movies. Read his reviews at keithandthemovies.com
‘Dear Evan Hansen’
77 Cast: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Rating: PG-13, for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes