From the moment the Dear Evan Hansen trailer debuted a couple of months ago, it was marred with controversy. Fans of the show and casual observers couldn’t help but point out the age of the titular character and how the actor, Ben Platt, looked nothing like a teenager (he won the Tony for this role in 2017 at the age of 23 but managed to maintain a boyish appearance). The controversy surrounding Platt’s age seems silly in retrospect because that’s the least of the problems contained in one of the most baffling films to be released this year.
We follow Evan (Platt), a high school senior who suffers from social anxiety, thus he can’t connect with the rest of the students in his class. He has one friend, Jared (Nik Dodani), but he is more of a family friend and keeps his distance from Evan too. In a way to embrace the positives of his day, Evan’s therapist tells him that he should write letters to himself. As he is writing a letter in the computer lab, Evan runs into Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), another socially awkward kid like himself, to which they have a small conversation, Conner signs Evan’s cast on his arm and the two part ways. In this moment, Evan seems to believe he might be having a good day, that’s until Conner reads Evan’s letter which contains Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), and takes it from Evan. Nervous about the letter, Evan spirals into panic later that night but quickly changes the next day, as he is summoned to the principal’s office and is confronted by Connor’s parents, who hand them the letter, telling him that Connor has committed suicide and that they wanted their sons best friend to know and want to get to know the person that their son called a friend.
It’s at this point of the story where you think a real life human being would’ve clarified everything with Connor’s parents and everyone moves on with their lives. Instead, this becomes the origin story for one of the most unrelatable, unsympathetic protagonists in theater, and now cinema, history as Evan creates a lie so big about his ‘friendship’ with Connor, that he manipulates everyone he comes in contact with throughout the film. At no point do you side with him, and furthermore, when Evan starts to grow and branch himself out into the world, it is at the expense of Connor’s death. If this is the purpose of the film, to reckon with what happens when you do something like this, then Dear Evan Hansen has a funny way of telling that message because that’s not what happens here. We are meant to care for Evan throughout the entire film, hoping there is a way he can get out of the mess he has made, and yet, we don’t get to see and feel the impact of his lies on all the other characters. What we get is a monster who uses people, doesn’t just tell the truth, and when everything is revealed, walks away without truly learning anything or facing any real consequences.
Sure, we get moments with Connor’s parents Larry and Cynthia (Danny Pino and 7-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams), his mother Heidi (Oscar winner Julianne Moore), and Alana (Amandla Stenberg), another classmate struggling like Evan and Connor, but they are all vessels for Evan to grow as a person and we don’t get to see that same growth in their screen time. When the film does try to turn an important speech by Evan into a PSA message for the scared, anxiety riddled world kids grow up in today, it feels manipulative and gross as the scene plays out. Dear Evan Hansen wants to be a commentary on the youth of today but is detracted from that reality. Knowing that this is pretty much how the Broadway musical was, which faced similar complaints about Evan’s story upon its release, makes the film version seem stubbornly irresponsible that no changes were made.
Even with a poor story and its terrible optics, this is a musical at the end of the day, so surely there should be some toe tapping, memorable numbers, right? Nope, every song is as soulless as its main character singing them. Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have found massive success over the past couple of years, winning multiple Tonys for this and an Oscar for Best Original Song for the song “City of Stars” for La La Land. Yet, there is not a memorable song, or even line, sung in this movie, which is baffling considering the success the property had on the stage. And what is even stranger is the lack of music too. For a movie that is around two hours and twenty minutes, there are only like ten songs, and the majority of them are sung by Platt, with no real production flare to them to make them stand out. These choices, which fall at the hands of director Stephen Chbosky and Steven Levenson, are some of the problem’s that faced La La Land, in that the film doesn’t know if it wants to be a drama or a musical and suffers at being both.
The cast is wasted from top to bottom, especially Dever, Stenberg, Moore, and Adams, who all give nothing to this movie. When the creative team has two of the best actress working today as well as two of the brightest young female stars in Hollywood, and can’t give them anything more than a song apiece that add nothing to their characters whatsoever, you know you are watching something truly tragic. Outside of Stenberg, the other actresses don’t also have the vocal range to carry these roles. Moore, whose given the emotional number of the third act, is pitchy and doesn’t have the heart to carry this song. Dever and Adams mostly meander through their songs, without many highlights found within each number. This is merely a showcase for Platt. His singing and acting choices don’t seem to work here because you don’t believe any of the emotional conflicts within Evan. On stage, an audience doesn’t fully get the chance to see all the small details you are making for the character. In the film, the camera is fixated on his face so much, you can see his questionable choice of added tics, his layered makeup, and the caricature of someone going through a mental illness. While Platt made this role famous, his decisions in the film performance make it clear that he doesn’t fully understand what it is like for someone to go through this condition every day of their life. And while his vocal range is impressive for some, it’s another aspect that hasn’t aged well for the role, making Evan sound way more mature and polished than what you would find on the stage.
Dear Evan Hansen is one of the biggest messes and missed opportunities of the year. There is a way we can talk about adolescent mental health on the big screen without incorporating uninteresting songs and stereotyped characters. It’s an important issue that should be taken seriously with care and compassion put behind the production, with the potential of it helping those who need help while providing an appropriate representation of live with these conditions. Unfortunately, this is what was given and words fail to describe how bad this is.
Universal Pictures will release Dear Evan Hansen in theaters on September 24.