It's a testament to the songwriting prowess of La La Land duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that Dear Evan Hansen has gotten anywhere. The story alone is so icky, so offensive, so profoundly manipulative and fraudulent, that it really never should have gotten a single Tony (or six), much less a film adaptation. Its music, however, is fairly affecting. So that's something.
In Stephen Chbosky's film, as in the show on which it's based, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a teenager struggling with extreme social anxiety whose therapy exercise of writing himself encouraging letters gives the musical its title. On the first day of school, his troubled classmate Connor (Colton Ryan) finds one of Evan's letters in a library printer and, outraged that it includes a mention of his sister (and Evan's crush) Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), storms out of the room, keeping the letter despite Evan's protests.
Not long after, Evan is summoned to the principal's office, where Connor and Zoe's parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) wait to meet him. Connor has died by suicide, and Evan's letter — addressed to Evan and signed simply "me" — was found in his pocket. Connor's parents take this and one other flimsy piece of evidence to mean that Evan and Connor were close friends, and Evan, unsure of what to do, doesn't correct them.
From there, Evan spins a wild tale of his and Connor's close bond, composing and backdating fake emails and constantly recalling a single, mostly made-up anecdote about a day they spent climbing a tree. He ingratiates himself more and more deeply with Connor's family, becomes a spokesperson for a school group devoted to mental health support and awareness organized in Connor's memory, and goes viral delivering a speech (about that same tired tree-climbing story) that crescendos into the film's anthem "You Will Be Found."
Erika Doss/Universal Pictures Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever in 'Dear Evan Hansen.'
"What is the problem?" you ask. "This is just While You Were Sleeping but with teen suicide and cyberbullying," you say, as if that weren't nightmarish enough. But Dear Evan Hansen itself is as fundamentally dishonest as its protagonist, clumsily pushing every tear-jerking button and invoking every pop-psychology cliché imaginable to create the illusion of something like empathy. The empathy is not actually there — most notably not in Evan.
It's enough of an ask to suspend disbelief as the outlandish plot contrivances pile up. What's harder to swallow is that Chbosky and screenwriter Steven Levenson (who also wrote the book of the musical, for which he won a Tony) frame Evan as a sympathetic hero rather than a budding sociopath. It may be a stretch to call him a villainous mastermind, exactly, but this is not the story of a well-meaning outcast who just falls into a lie that spirals out of his control. Nothing builds to the ridiculous (and ridiculously topical) stakes of Dear Evan Hansen by accident. He does that, actively, and he does it for himself, whatever all the shots of Amy Adams' luminous, teary-eyed face may suggest.
Obviously, movies do not have to have admirable protagonists to be effective. But no real healing can come, even indirectly, of Evan's charade — he does not share a single truth about Connor, whose family clings desperately to Evan's dramatic (and false) rebranding of their abusive son — nor can any meaning come of a movie that is so insincere in itself. Just as Evan covers trauma with a new trauma, so does this glossily made, blandly designed 137-minute movie cover trauma with schmaltz.
Platt is 27 (turning 28 on the day of the film's wide release) and too old to play Evan, a role he originated (and won a Tony, Emmy, and Grammy for, though I doubt this will earn him the full EGOT). The internet made up its mind that he'd aged out of the part the second the trailer dropped, and this time the internet was right, if needlessly cruel (as usual) in its expression. The most distracting thing about Platt's miscasting isn't that he looks like he's in his 20s — most of us can sit through Grease without the experience being ruined by the fact that half the cast is twice the age of their characters — but that he's actively overcompensating for it, which has the opposite of its intended effect.
The script may have moved from stage to screen, but its star doesn't seem to have made that transition, and his performance reads heavily as just that — a performance. Considering he's an accomplished stage actor with exceptional command over his body (and over his extraordinary voice), Platt's carefully choreographed physicality of awkwardness is that much more jarring; this is supposed to be a person whose ability to move through space is about two or three growth spurts behind his frame. When you need an actor to convey, in unforgiving close-up, the ineffable adolescent discomfort of feeling somehow unqualified to simply walk to their own locker, you need to track down an actual teenager. Chbosky did not, so here we are.
As Evan's mom, the ever-reliable Julianne Moore delivers one of the film's few poignant moments in a musical number late in the film. Dever, too, finds some crumb of insight in Zoe's ambivalence about her brother's death; of the whole cast, the Booksmart actress gets the closest to pulling off a credible character in this hyper-engineered world of tragedy exploited and truth forsaken — and of songs. The songs work. Grade: D
Dear Evan Hansen is out Sept. 24.