Despite the number of awards associated with the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” and its star Ben Platt, the transition to the big screen by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) is a grueling misfire that feels awkward, tedious, and a few years too late. Teen suicide and mental illness are such weighty topics that the film’s humor feels out of place. The songs are great, but in the context of the film, they also feel uneven. It’s not good when you’re watching a musical secretly hoping they won’t break out into another song.
I’ve never seen DEH on the stage. Judging by all the critical acclaim, several Tony and Grammy awards, and a Daytime Emmy for Ben Platt and the cast for just performing a song on the Today Show, it’s a beast but in a movie theater, not so much. It’s been six years since Platt first performed the role of Evan. He’s now pushing 30 and despite the makeup, it’s like watching Steve Carell play a high school kid. Social media has changed since the show’s inception. The world moves a lot faster. Perhaps TikTok should have been substituted for IG, but on a positive note, at least no one is on Vine.
The plot involves socially awkward Evan Hansen (Platt), a high school senior who suffers from extreme anxiety. He’s on several medications, is bullied at school, and his gay best friend Jared (Nik Dodani) isn’t really a friend. When Evan asks him to be the first person to sign his cast (we’ll get back to that) Jared declines, stating he’s only a “family friend” which means their parents are friends.
Now let’s get back to the cast on Evan’s arm. It plays a significant role in the story. Over the summer he fell out of a tree — “What, are you five?” is the running joke — and his mom Heidi (the wonderful Julianne Moore) suggests that Evan get his classmates to sign it. He’s too apprehensive to ask anyone to do that, but one day in the library the school’s troubled teen Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) grabs a sharpie and signs his name in big bold letters. Ryan commands the screen and unfortunately, there isn’t enough of him or his character in the film (we’ll also get to that).
As witnessed in an earlier scene, Connor has anger management issues although he’s not a bully, like Evan he’s one of the student’s being bullied. He also doesn’t get along with his younger sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who Evan secretly pines after.
As an exercise by his therapist, Evan writes letters to himself. One of those falls into Connor’s hands who mistakes it as a prank against him. He commits suicide (sorry, no buffer) and when his parents (Danny Pino and Amy Adams) find the letter addressed “Dear Evan Hansen” on him, they assume Evan was their son’s only friend. Of course, he doesn’t have the heart to tell them otherwise and thus begins Evan’s downward spiral as the lies accumulate and the teenager’s social status explodes, even Zoe feels drawn to Evan who forces her to see her a-hole brother in a different light.
I also want to point out Amandla Stenberg’s fine performance as popular student Alana Beck. She’s the outgoing teen who’s president of all the clubs. She can get the student body pumped up about saving the environment, but she also shares traits with Evan as she acknowledges in a scene where she tries to play the “we are a lot alike card” although it doesn’t feel genuine.
In the context of a play where the musical’s songs — written by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (“La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman”) — are the focus, I can see why DEH was successful. They are catchy. But in the cinematic universe, the story must reel you in, while the songs are the icing on the cake. Look at “Grease” and “West Side Story” or “La La Land” (which was produced by Ben Platt’s father Marc), the songs are great but so is the content between each number. With “Dear Evan Hansen” the plot is just filler between each song. It’s distracting, and just when you’re hoping the escalating drama is going to lead to a powerful scene, the actors burst into song, watering down the moment. It just doesn’t work.
Opens Friday, September 24 in theaters