Last night, I finally watched Dear Evan Hansen.
Dear Evan Hansen is the film adaptation of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical of the same name. Recreating his stage role, Ben Platt plays Evan Hansen, a teenager who suffers from social anxiety and who is mistaken for having been the best friend of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a troubled classmate who committed suicide after stealing a letter that Evan had written to himself. (Somewhat awkwardly, it was also a letter in which Evan somewhat obliquely wrote about the crush that he had on a member of Connor’s family.) When the letter is subsequently found on Connor’s body, it’s assumed that it’s a suicide note that Connor meant for Evan. Evan, who is in love with Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), allows everyone to believe that he and Connor were friends. Connor’s mother, Cynthia, (Amy Adams) and his stepfather (Danny Pino) adopt Evan as a sort of replacement for their dead son. Cynthia views Evan as being the only way that she’ll ever understand what Connor was going through and Evan continually reassures that Murphys that Connor really did love all of them and that he was trying to change his life for the better. With the Murphys now treating Evan as a member of their own family, Evan’s mother (Julianne Moore) feels that her son is now ashamed of her. And Evan’s classmate, Alana (Amandla Stenberg), launches a movement to raise money to preserve the apple orchard where Evan claims that he and Connor spent all of their time together.
As a musical, Dear Evan Hansen was very popular. As a film, it doesn’t work and it doesn’t work for all the reasons that everyone assumed that it wouldn’t work. Believe me, I wanted it work. From the minute that the trailer first dropped, the reaction to the film has been so overwhelmingly negative that I was really hoping that the film itself would turn out to be an overlooked gem. I was really hoping that this would be one of those underappreciated films that just needed a few brave champions. Instead, it turned out to be not terrible in the way that Cats was terrible but still too flawed to be considered a success.
First off, the plot itself doesn’t transition well from the stage to film. There’s too many holes and there’s too many places in the story where you find yourself wondering why you should care about Evan and his problems. Those plot holes may not have been as big of a problem when the story was presented on the stage because watching any story play out against an artificial backdrop requires a certain suspension of disbelief. But, on film, seeing Evan attending an actual school and walking down an actual street and visiting an actual house, you’re much more aware of how inauthentic the story feels. Evan’s actions rarely make sense and it’s difficult to accept that anyone, even Connor’s emotionally desperate parents, would believe the stories that Evan concocts about his friendship with Connor. On stage, you could perhaps accept that Zoe would buy that Evan and Connor were friends who confided in each other despite the fact that Evan doesn’t seem to know anything about Connor’s family or home life. On screen, especially when one considers the fierce intelligence that Kaitlyn Dever brings to the role of Zoe, it’s a bit more difficult to believe.
The other big problem with the film is Ben Platt is too old for the role of Evan. Platt first played the role in 2015, when he was 23. He won a Tony and certainly, he deserves a lot of credit for creating the role from the workshop phase all the way to Broadway. Now, however, he’s 28 and he looks considerably older. So much of what Evan does is acceptable only if you believe that he’s an immature 17 year-old who is desperately looking for a place and a family where he belongs. The same actions go from being poignant to being creepy when they’re done by someone who appears to be in his mid-30s. While Platt has a great singing voice and shines in the musical numbers, he’s a bit too mannered when he just has to recite dialogue. He’s still giving a stage performance, even though he’s now playing the role on film and everyone around him is giving a film performance. Platt’s talent is undeniable but he’s miscast here and casting him opposite performers who can actually still pass for teenagers doesn’t help the situation at all.
(When I watched the film, I thought that obvious age difference between Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever occasionally made the scenes between Evan and Zoe uncomfortable to watch. Then I did some research and discovered that Dever is only three years younger than Platt. It’s just that Dever still looks like a teen while Platt looks very much like an adult. And there’s no shame in looking your age. Someone just needs to cast Platt in an adult role.)
In Platt’s defense, the film doesn’t really make perfect use of any of the members of its talented cast. Amy Adams is such a good actress but the film casts her as a stereotypically flakey rich suburbanite who flitters from one trend to another. Julianne Moore and Amandla Stenberg are similarly wasted, playing characters who have potential but who are never quite given as much to do as they deserve. Of the cast, Kaitlyn Dever is the stand-out, even though Zoe is a bit of an inconsistent character. Initially, she seems like the one person willing to call out everyone on their BS and then, just as suddenly, she’s oddly forgiving of someone who essentially manipulated her emotions for his own benefit.
Not surprisingly, Dear Evan Hansen works best when people are singing. Ben Platt and Colton Ryan bring so much energy to Sincerely, Me that I briefly had hope that the film was turning itself around. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case but still, it’s a good production number. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t really live up to it.