Insincerity spoils Dear Evan Hansen. The disconnect happens early and no infectious melody can quite reset the system. There is something to be said of miscasting Ben Platt – too broad, too muscular to convince as a timid teen – in the fault of this. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Let’s not forget the likes of James Dean and John Travolta, beloved before him. More problematically, Stephen Chbosky’s is a film that fumbles challenging issues and raises dilemmas without ever taking sides or laying blame. Instead, a blunt script by Steven Levenson responds ‘it’s complicated’. At well over two hours, the result is a plethora of highs and lows and drags on for forever.
Right back to its 2017 debut, Dear Evan Hansen has courted acclaim and controversy by equal measure. While some hailed the show as the timely voice of a generation, others critiqued a flimsy, sanitised approach to mental illness. On transitioning to Broadway, Evan bagged Tony’s and scathing column inches in sync. When it comes to the film, one or two adroit changes to Levinson’s script may narrow the polarisation of reviews but it’s no guarantee. Likewise, one should never bet against show-pop lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman, La La Land) when it comes to crowd pleasing. If nothing else, the songs here are superb.
As we meet him, Evan Hansen (Platt) is a teenage recluse, burdened by the weights of social anxiety and depression. With his father long since out of the picture, Evan is supported solely by his overworked Mum – Julianne Moore’s Cynthia – but she’s barely around. At school, his one friend identifies as a ‘family friend’ and, yes, there’s a difference. That’s Nik Dodani’s Jared. He’s no confidant. When it comes to Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), Evan’s unrequited love interest, Jared advises: ‘you obviously should not talk to her, you are a literal disaster’. It’s when Evan crosses paths with Zoe’s brother Connor (Colton Ryan, one time understudy of the part on Broadway), however, that the plot begins to machinate.
Connor, too, suffers mental ill-health. That unspecific variety that proves entirely unhelpful when it comes to engaging with contemporary dialogues. He paints his nails black and is prone to outbursts. That’s your lot. Diagnose away. Evan has been asked by his therapist to write upbeat and motivating letters to himself about the great possibilities of his life. When one such letter, suggesting happiness might be found if Evan can bring himself to talk to Zoe, falls into Connor’s path, misunderstanding sees him repulsed.
Then comes the biggest twist in fate off all. A day later, Connor is still in possession of the letter when he kills himself. Naturally, his parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) believe it to be a suicide note. Initial protestations from Evan fade on seeing the hope his letter inspires in the Murphys. Soon it will become clear that he too can benefit from this faux friendship. A barnstorming musical sequence sees Evan and Jared craft a whole back catalogue of fake emails and it’s a sticky web that follows.
Prosthetic adjustments do no favours in the process of de-ageing Platt a decade. The twenty-eight year old lost 15lbs and shaved excessively for the role but the effects are more alienating than if he hadn’t bothered. On the other hand, no degree of lumpen make up can’t mute the power of his vocal abilities. Close your eyes during the choppy editing of Evan’s opening number and it’s a stunning listen. Moore too excels in her own stirring number later in the film and who knew Dever was so sure and graceful a singer? If Platt carries one or two too many overstated mannerisms from his work on the stage to its the film – anxiety is internal not external – those around him generally stir empathy. And yet, Levenson’s script works them too hard. Every note is underlined and every development designed to wrench at the heartstrings of a willing audience. Some of it succeeds but rarely is this an organic process.
In essence, Dear Evan Hansen falls fowl mostly to traps of its own creation. It is a film that challenges insincerity with insincerity and finds itself hopelessly confused along the way. Is You Will Be Found – the musical’s headline number – an empowering anthem or crushing indictment of social media? The film cannot decide and is worse for it. By contrast, there’s painstaking honesty in the scene where Amandla Sternberg’s Alana opens up to Evan about her own struggles with anxiety. This in the face of Evan’s blunt remark: ‘You don’t really act like a depressed sort of person’. Perhaps Chbosky is right. Maybe it is easier to just conclude: it’s complicated.