Before I address the problems that constitute the majority of Dear Evan Hansen, I should acknowledge its merits. The concept of a high-energy Broadway musical about the social isolation of a geeky and suicidal teen outcast is surprisingly provocative. Maybe it’s pandering and low-hanging fruit, considering — based on my high school experience — that the main audience contingent who obsesseses over Broadway musicals are lonely theater kids spinning their soundtracks on loop in their rooms waiting for their crushes to text them. But underneath the mess of this movie, there’s a kernel of something stirring here. The vitriolic takedown this movie suffered from fans and critics is, I think, an overreaction: the movie tackles such big, complicated emotions with unflinching directness and vulnerability that few movies dare. This will stir up audiences even if — especially if — the execution falls way short.
Stephen Chbosky, previously a young adult novelist, helms this adaptation of the Tony-winning musical, and he ranks among the least problematic elements of the film. The performances are horribly inconsistent, which is partially the responsibility of the director, but overall Chbosky manages to make the film feel visually and rhythmically cohesive, occasionally even elevating the material. One case in point is the rapidly shifting reality in “Sincerely Me,” which really feels like it was designed for cinemas rather than transplanted from the stage.
The film features one standout performance – Julianne Moore as Evan’s mother. Moore excels at portraying complex, prickly women on the brink, particularly mothers. She’s the only actor who seems to fully embody her character. It’s a performance that’s good enough that it manages to make everything around seem even worse.
That about wraps up the nice things I have to say. Dear Evan Hansen is, in essence, a catastrophic misfire that accentuates the worst aspects of the stage play, one that even its staunchest defenders acknowledge walks a tightrope of tones and ideas. This adaptation doesn’t just wobble in its tone, it takes a swan dive from the high wire, crumpling in an over-earnest heap at the bottom.
The musical follows the titular Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) as he finds himself entangled in an escalating lie about his relationship with classmate Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), who dies by suicide following a dust-up between the two. The plot uses this scenario as a prism for exploring the false identities we construct to impress others, especially through social media, and the destructive nature of such inauthenticity.
The biggest issue is Evan Hansen himself. He is neither sympathetic nor enjoyable to spend time with. The story attempts to absolve him of initiating the lie and committing some of its worst actions, like publishing Connor’s alleged suicide note. However, his refusal to confess at key moments renders him nearly as petulant and selfish as if he’d done it all himself. The obvious rewrite is to make him more of an anti-hero pulling the strings to get attention rather than a bumbling sad-sack. He’d at least be fun to root against, then. But as it is, there’s nothing appealing about the character; he’s just pathetic.
Platt’s performance doesn’t help. His portrayal of Hansen is a dud. His singing is adequate, though it grows a bit thin and reedy on the high notes. (He sounds better on the original Broadway recordings than here.) He also struggles to create any chemistry whatsoever with his fellow cast members, especially Kaitlyn Dever who plays Evan’s love interest and Connor’s sister, Zoe. Casting adults as teenagers is a longstanding Hollywood tradition — plenty of 27-year-olds have played 16 — so I’m not quite so up in arms as everyone else seems to be about him being too old for the role. But it’s not like he brings something that another, younger actor could just as easily have brought; in fact, he’s quite awkward.
Worse yet is Amy Adams, portraying Connor’s mother Cynthia. It’s a disastrous performance. Cynthia is a mess of a character to begin with, and Adams’s doe-eyed take on a grieving mother who sentimentalizes her lost child is tough to sit through. Bereft of humor or genuine sympathy, Adams’s performance is a shallow cliché.
The other performances are not much better. Dever gives a passable portrayal of a sister with mixed emotions towards her deceased brother, but her lack of chemistry with Platt is a dealbreaker. Amandla Stenberg changes her mind on just how geeky and annoying her character is every other scene. Nik Dodani mostly manages to stay afloat as Evan’s snarky best friend.
The score, too, is uneven. Although I appreciate its color and ambition, most of the numbers take themselves too seriously, much like the title character. “Sincerely Me” is again the highlight; it’s one of the few numbers designed with fun and humor. I also like “Waving Through a Window,” which remained stuck in my head for hours after watching.
Ultimately, Dear Evan Hansen, as adapted here, does an excellent job at being uncomfortable to watch, but not for the reasons it intends. While I’m always happy to watch big-budget musicals as well as high school movies of any sort, Dear Evan Hansen is a disappointment. If you’re curious, try to find a local stage performance: The story benefits the abstraction of theater where it can remain a fable with a looser hold on its uncomfortable reality. As a mediocre teen drama film, but with some showtunes, Dear Evan Hansen is a bummer.