The film adaptation of the popular musical about teen anxiety is super awkward
Ever since the trailer for Dear Evan Hansen came out, there’s been some apprehension about actor Ben Platt reprising his role in it. He originated the role of high schooler Evan in the Broadway musical in 2015, and won a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy. But he’s 27 now. Then again, it’s not like this sort of screen casting is a rarity. So does it matter?
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In this case, yes, it really does! The Stephen Chbosky-directed film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (and is the only movie I wanted to see that was available digitally to U.S. critics, harrumph), is absolutely dominated by how much Platt’s presence doesn’t work. That’s not to say the actor’s an old man at 27, just that he’s very clearly an adult. And no amount of slouching and bangs and stripey boy-polos can change that. “He looks like Fred Armisen,” remarked my musicals-phobic husband as he passed through the room. It’s true: squint and this could be a Portlandia sketch about a Dear Evan Hansen-ish show.
This is the kind of car-crash spectacle I usually enjoy, like Twitter’s reaction to the Cats movie. But it’s unfortunate here, because this is a musical not about human-cat hybrids but social anxiety and suicide, and it resonated with a lot of people. I had not seen the stage show, so I’m coming in fresh. All I know is that in 2012, Chbosky directed an adaptation of his own book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and in my opinion improved his own work substantially. So he’s obviously got a bent for telling misfit stories and making them shine on screen. Great!
Dear Evan Hansen, out in theaters on the 24th, is the story of a high school senior with crippling anxiety who uses the suicide of a fellow outcast to lie his way into sympathy-popularity and become a viral sensation online. A dark, topical premise. At the start, it’s the first day of school and Evan’s got a cast on his arm, having fallen out of a tree. He’s writing a pep talk letter to himself, per his therapist’s instructions. Hence the title. Here’s the first song, “Waving Through a Window.” It’s about how he feels like nobody can see him or hear him. “When you’re falling in a forest and there’s nobody around, do you ever really crash, or even make a sound?” he sings. And repeats. Again. AND AGAIN. AND AGAIN. Jesus christ, we get it! The forest metaphor! He broke his arm in the tree! Yes!
DEAR EVAN HANSEN ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Written by: Steven Levenson
Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg
Running time: 137 mins
This is one of the big hit numbers from this musical, and I guess either you like this style or you don’t. Aside from the catchy midpoint showstopper You Will Be Found (which still feels a little like it was designed in a lab to make you cry), I just didn’t. The songs are by the guys from La La Land, another polarizing piece of work, so perhaps I should have known. If you like songs about feelings that really double down on their most supposedly resonant lines, then you’ll love this. Or you already do. I’m sorry!
Chbosky’s directing is serviceable enough, but this is a very straightforward, realistic, daytime-lit rendering, and it has the effect of heightening the disconnect between Platt and the rest of the film. Amy Adams is lovely as the sad-eyed mother of Connor, the dead kid, and Julianne Moore gives it her all as Evan’s hardworking single mom. Kaitlyn Dever of Booksmart is, unsurprisingly, good as Connor’s sister, who’s also Evan’s love interest, which is one of the many creepy aspects of Evan Hansen. But Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give) is MVP as Alana, the seemingly perfect student who’s secretly also dealing with depression and anxiety. Recast the lead role with an actual teenager, and this film might work, over-emo-soundtrack be damned.
There are just so many bad choices for Platt. The hoodie, the sweatiness. The extreme close-ups. The unfortunate haircut, apparently not a wig. It’s evocative of deliberately comic flashbacks to the awkward high school years, like Ben Stiller in There’s Something About Mary. Or Kyle Mooney in everything on SNL. Or a Very Special Episode of 21 Jump Street. Most of all, it’s the narcissism involved with not realizing when you’ve stayed too long at the fair that gets me.
Turn off the sound on the trailer, though, and it becomes a great stalker film: Fear Evan Hansen.