Dear Evan Hansen Ben Platt Stephen Chbosky

So-called teen musical Dear Evan Hansen is misguided from top to bottom

Ben Platt’s age-inappropriate casting is only one of the many problems faced by this adaptation of a Broadway hit.

It’s going to be impossible to discuss Dear Evan Hansen without discussing the almost-immediate and seemingly irreversible backlash that popped up the second the trailer was released. Dear Evan Hansen is an adaptation of a hit Broadway musical that has made the somewhat understandable choice of casting the lead character with the guy who originated the role. This is not exactly unheard of in the realm of Broadway adaptations, but there’s a catch here: The titular Evan Hansen is a high-school senior, and the man playing him is 27 years old. Once again, not unheard of — but Ben Platt, the 27-year-old in question, does not exactly have a youthful spunk to him. It’s not his fault and it shouldn’t, generally speaking, stop him from having a successful career — but it should not be on what this painfully earnest and often bizarrely single-minded musical rests.

As it turns out, there’s a lot more careening off the rails in Stephen Chbosky’s big-screen adaptation than just a lead who looks much too old for the part. What may have worked with the abstraction of the stage feels unbelievably on-the-nose here. Though the source material explores rather complex issues, they’re completely flattened out here in a way that only serves to underline how ultimately non-confrontational and pat the whole thing is. I’ve never seen the original play but by all accounts, it’s an accurate translation of the narrative, at the very least. Where Dear Evan Hansen stumbles is in not seeing the fundamental difference between the stage and the screen; where some complex emotions can easily be conveyed on-stage with simplistic approaches, the camera is not so forgiving.

Evan Hansen (Platt) is a friendless high-school student who lives his life completely and utterly petrified of human contact. Highly medicated, he lives a lonely life that he nevertheless tries to hide from his hard-working mother (Julianne Moore). Right at the beginning of the new school year, Evan has a few interactions with Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a troubled, aggressive kid who, like Evan, has few friends. When Evan writes a letter to himself as a journaling exercise suggested by his therapist, it falls into the hands of Connor — and is found on his person when he commits suicide. Connor’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) wrongly assume the note was actually addressed to Evan and that their son had a personal relationship with him — which Evan, petrified, doesn’t deny. Soon he finds himself drawn into the world of the grieving parents and faking a relationship with their son that grows out of proportion as Connor’s death becomes a symbol.

Dear Evan Hansen Ben Platt Stephen Chbosky Julianne Moore
Ben Platt and Julianne Moore in Dear Evan Hansen

The premise of Dear Evan Hansen is actually a pretty good one. It’s pretty rich, darkly comic material that, in the right hands, could make for a truly thought-provoking comedy about the ways people respond to death and trauma. (It’s also, incidentally, kind of the premise of Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad.) The thing is that, to make this incisive dark comedy that exists mainly in my mind at the moment, you need a deft touch — and not the painfully earnest Broadway musical approach that’s almost completely wrung out of its comic appeal by Chbosky’s direction. Dear Evan Hansen could work if the songs were understood to mean the opposite of what they’re saying — if there was a certain irony to the proceedings that would help us process the absurdity of the sociopathic behaviour displayed by our main character.

I think all that stuff is there if you know to look for it, but Dear Evan Hansen seems unfazed by all of this, instead trotting out endless power ballads delivered with theatre-kid chutzpah by the cast. It seems incomprehensible to me that everyone has so fundamentally misunderstood the premise of the whole thing — these are smart people, by and large, with experience in telling stories — and yet Dear Evan Hansen mostly comes across as a disinterested slog, filled with empty performances. While it’s true that Platt looks much too old for the role, it’s something we get used to pretty fast at the film goes on. What’s more difficult to adapt to is the fact that so many songs play out in banal closeups in which Platt alternates between dead-eyed vocal calisthenics and over-the-top, tic-heavy line deliveries. Moore only has one song in the film, towards the end, and it becomes immediately clear at that moment that Platt is still playing everything as if he were on stage. The camera forgives nothing.

There’s certainly some humour to the proceedings. One early musical sequence even plays with metatextual elements a bit, suggesting a more energetic film that never resurfaces as Chbosky lines up yet another full musical sequence that’s 75% closeups of actors singing shit that sounds like big-band arrangements of Dashboard Confessional castoffs. It’s not even that the film needs to be a comedy; it’s that everything seems to be in place to avoid exploring the issues raised by the premise in any depth and instead skims the surface of the obvious. I have to assume all of this is present in the play, as well, but a play comes prepackaged with a certain level of abstraction that this movie simply does not have. 

I’ll fully admit that I was expecting Dear Evan Hansen to be a fiasco of Cats-like proportions; that’s certainly what initial buzz had prepared me for. It’s not nearly that bad. It’s not particularly embarrassing, for that matter, though there is something fundamentally unpleasant about the way it treats everything so matter-of-factly. It’s not just about a guy who made a mistake — it’s about a guy who acts in a completely manipulative way almost completely accidentally, which is a very rich dramatic premise for a film. Someone should make that movie. ■

Dear Evan Hansen opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 24

Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Stephen Chbosky, starring Ben Platt

For more film coverage, please visit the Film & TV section.