“Dear Evan Hansen,” the big screen adaptation of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, is a mixed bag. The coming-of-age story of a misunderstanding that takes on a life of its own, has moments of pure emotion but is often sidelined by clunky presentation.
Ben Platt reprises his Tony winning role as Evan Hansen, a high school outcast with a history of Social Anxiety Disorder. His loving-but-absent nurse mom (Julianne Moore) encourages him to put himself out there and meet new people, but his nerves always get the best of him. Even his only friend Jared (Nik Dodani, who provides much needed comic relief) makes it clear that he only speaks to Evan because their mothers are friends.
Evan’s therapist has him write daily Stuart “Doggone It, People Like Me!” Smiley style affirmations, letters addressed Dear Evan Hansen, followed by paragraphs of “Today is going to be a good day,” style declarations. When one of his letters is taken by troubled classmate Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), Evan worries it will end up on-line, bringing humiliation and ridicule. Instead, the letter takes on a life in a way Evan could never have imagined when Connor dies by suicide.
Connor’s parents, Cynthia and Larry (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) find the note and assume it is Connor’s last words to his best friend. “He wrote it to you,” Cynthia says. “These the words he wanted to share with you.” It’s not true, of course. Evan barely knew Connor, but he goes along with it to make the parents feel better. “I’ve never seen anyone so sad,” Evan says of Cynthia.
The misunderstanding—OK, let’s call it a lie—grows as Evan becomes close to the Murphys, and even begins to fake evidence of his relationship with Connor. The parents want to learn about their son through Evan, and he likes the warmth of the family and he likes their daughter Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) even more.
At a high school memorial for Connor, Evan’s speech (actually a song) inspires people, goes viral, and, for the Murphys, gives meaning to Connor’s short life. But Evan’s on-line popularity is short-lived when people start asking questions about his friendship with the dead boy.
The flashy staging of the Broadway era “Dear Evan Hansen” is gone, replaced by a stripped down, more naturalistic treatment. That works well for Dever, Moore, Amandla Stenberg who plays student council dynamo Alana and Adams, who is the movie’s heart and soul, all of whom hand in warm, authentic performances. The effectiveness of Platt’s work is sometimes undone with work that feels as though it belongs on a stage and not the more intimate medium of film. His embodiment of teenage angst, the hunched over shoulders and doleful eyes, plays to the back of the house, breaking
There is a long history of twenty-somethings playing high schoolers in movies, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Platt, at age twenty-seven, is just outside the window to effectively play his signature teenage character under the camera’s scrutiny. Occasionally his moony-eyed reveries, directed at Zoe, come across as creepy, not sweetly romantic.
Still, there are moments of undeniable power in “Dear Evan Hansen.” The transitions from dialogue to song aren’t always smooth, but the songs pack a punch. “Only Us,” Dever’s duet with Platt, understatedly plucks at the heartstrings and Stenberg’s “The Anonymous Ones,” a new song for the film, transcends the melodrama of the story with a beautiful recounting of the film’s themes of grief and loneliness. As it was on stage “You Will Be Found,” with the repeated line, “You are not alone,” is a show stopper.
It is a shame then, that a movie with potent moments ultimately feels like the titular character is guilty of exploiting Connor and his family. The movie acknowledges this, but it still doesn’t generate the kind of empathy for Evan necessary to make the film work on a deeper level.