Let’s deal with the main talking point about Dear Evan Hansen: Ben Platt is playing a high-school senior in a film that opens on the day he turns 28. He was 22 when he first portrayed the title character of the widely acclaimed Broadway musical that the movie is based on. He won a Tony for that performance, and you can see why people wanted to preserve his work on film.
The problem is, actors are physically further away from the audience in a theater, so they have more leeway to play characters younger or older than themselves. The camera is much less forgiving. The filmmakers have tried to get away with Platt’s age by giving him a curly hairdo that he didn’t have in the show. They’ve also cast an older actress (Julianne Moore) as his mother, and his average height helps convey an impression of youth as well. None of it makes him a credible teenager. I went into the movie thinking that if that were the biggest issue, that wouldn’t be so bad. Turns out there are bigger issues, though as a guy who heartily detested The Greatest Showman, I must say this still isn’t so bad.
We meet Evan as the school year begins, suffering from a broken left arm from a summer job accident, as well as social anxiety that’s far more crippling. To complete an assignment from his psychotherapist, he writes an anguished letter to himself on a school computer: “I wish that anything I did mattered.” Troubled and troublemaking fellow senior Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) maliciously takes the printout of Evan’s letter and runs off. Three days later, Evan receives the letter back from Connor’s mother (Amy Adams), when she informs him that her son took his own life. Connor’s possession of what looks like a suicide note addressed to Evan and his signature on Evan’s cast convince her that Evan was Connor’s best and only friend. Evan can’t bear to tell her the truth, and also now has an excuse to spend time with Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who just happens to be the girl he’s been nursing a crush on.
The director here is Stephen Chbosky, and in some ways he’s perfectly matched to this material. He’s in his 50s, but teen angst is where he lives (The Perks of Being a Wallflower). He brings some unexpected visual flair to the early parts, when Evan sings the opening number “Waving Through a Window” while standing on a lone red tile in the middle of his school’s white linoleum hallway. The comic song “Sincerely, Me” receives a funny staging as Evan and his A/V geek friend (Nik Dodani) forge email messages from Connor to prove their friendship. Chbosky uses some extreme close-ups to capture Evan’s panic when he’s called on to speak to a school assembly about Connor. At another point, Evan goes to a family dinner at the Murphys’, and the excruciating vibe is well captured as Connor’s mom and stepdad (Danny Pino) snipe at each other.
These are great, but Chbosky doesn’t have the instincts for a musical, for managing that break between spoken drama and sung drama. Too often, the camera just sits there during songs while the actors do the same, which is a major reason why the film loses its early momentum. The songs themselves by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul boast some lovely moments but generally aren’t strong enough to sustain the director’s inertia. The musical conceit falls apart entirely with the staging of the climactic number “Words Fail,” when Evan finally comes clean. The movie would have been better off cutting the song entirely in favor of a speech, so stilted is the scene.
Lucky this film is impeccably sung by the cast. Dever’s slender soprano carries well, and she is terrific as the overlooked child who’s now drawing attention as the dead boy’s sister. She leads the trio “Requiem” with Adams and Pino, which may have the most attractive singing on the soundtrack. As the student council president who turns Connor’s death into a mental health awareness crusade, Amandla Stenberg jolts the film with her rendition of “The Anonymous Ones,” a new song written for the film. Hell, even Moore does a reasonable impression of a seasoned Broadway singer in “So Big / So Small.” As for Platt, his tenor sounds jewel-like on those soaring vocal lines that Pasek and Paul are so fond of, and he’s never less than a pleasure to hear.
For all of Evan’s snowballing lies, the kids around him do bad things as well, and the parents’ behavior leaves a ton to be desired. That student council president ultimately betrays Evan and, in a plot development not from the show, turns the Murphys into targets of online hate. What I like about all of this is that Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t sell uplift in the cheap, toothy, “believe in yourself” way that The Greatest Showman did. When Evan sings his inspirational ballad “You Will Be Found,” the movie knows that the song’s sentiments are crap because Evan’s giving his crowd what they want to hear. The screens of various YouTubers joining in his song eventually merge into a portrait of Connor’s face, and it’s a neat over-the-top touch to underscore Evan’s bullshit. The film could have been still sharper in its satire, but as long as it keeps its eye on its characters’ flaws like this, it saves itself.
Dear Evan Hansen
Starring Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever. Directed by Stephen Chbosky. Written by Steven Levenson, based on his own musical libretto. Rated PG-13.