Editor’s Note: This review contains discussions and references to suicide. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
The most out of its depth movie you will see all year, Dear Evan Hansen proves that some adaptations of musicals should remain where they began: on the stage and as far away from the screen as possible.
To even attempt to fully explain the insulting faux sentimentality and thoroughly flip manner in which Dear Evan Hansen tries to tackle its themes would be to only scratch the surface of how misjudged it all is. The premise of the film is that Evan Hansen—played by Ben Platt, 27—is a high school student who is struggling with anxiety and depression. As a coping mechanism, he writes letters to himself that he signs simply “Me.” It echoes the device of director Stephen Chbosky's previous film and novel, 2012’s far superior The Perks of Being a Wallflower. However, here, the letters are merely a plot device, rather than also serving as a more well-rounded way to develop a character.
The ambiguity of the letter creates a misunderstanding that becomes a lie that will define the film. This is because one of Evan’s classmates, Connor Murphy, takes this letter from a library printer and keeps it with him. He does this as Evan had written about his sister, Kaitlyn Dever's Zoe. Connor tragically takes his own life later that day. When his family discovers the letter, they assume that Connor was good friends with Evan and reach out to him in an attempt to hold on to the last memories of their now gone family member. Instead of correcting them, Evan lets them believe that he was actually close friends with Connor. In reality, Evan never knew him at all. That single choice becomes a cascading mess that only gets more out of hand. It mirrors the film, which never gets a handle on itself.
What starts as a desire to offer comfort to Connor’s parents, Amy Adam's Cynthia and Danny Pino's Larry, becomes a self-serving lie that Evan builds to gargantuan proportions. If this sounds less like a heartwarming drama and more like a horrifying depiction of a selfish narcissist deceiving a grieving family, that’s because it is. Whatever attempts it makes to grapple more authentically with the depths of this lie, Dear Evan Hansen is a tonal mess. It becomes increasingly superficial in approach as this deception requires more and more lies to keep it all going. It is perfectly fine to have a film have a degree of dark humor, but that would require some degree of cleverness, which is utterly absent here.
The film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen becomes a perfect case study of how a stage musical abides by different rules. Where the nature of a musical performance can be stagey, even leaning into the more fantastical heights allowed in the form, that doesn’t translate well at all here. The scenes where the film required something resembling nuance and tactful storytelling never materialize. The film instead bumbles along as the lie gets deeper and deeper to the point it nearly collapses under its weight. The film itself even begins to feel like it is lying to us, straining against the boundaries of believability.
This begins in the earliest moments of the film where Evan’s mother Heidi, played by a completely underutilized Julianne Moore, emphasizes that he is a senior in high school in a statement that is clearly meant to speak directly to the audience via clunky exposition. From this completely absurd line onwards, the film attempts to convince you of a reality that utterly strains believability. Platt, looking far older than his 27 years, is a talented singer. It may be that when he was on the stage, the magic of the theater as well as the distance the audience viewed him from made his age difference more understandable and less noticeable.
But the reality of the film makes it difficult to overlook Platt’s age. In each scene, every closeup on Evan makes it feels like this is an adult who has snuck into this school. Obviously, this isn’t the first time that an actor has played someone far younger than themselves. However, this is the worst offender because of how Platt overcompensates. From the manner in which he carries himself with a wide eyed deer-like expression to the way he attempts to speak with youthful humor, it perpetually feels hollow and out of place.
For musical fans, there may still be something worth salvaging here, as it is clear the songs are well-loved. After all, the original production won a Tony for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Performance for Platt. But ultimately, the music fails to overcome how off everything else feels on screen— much like 2019’s catastrophic Cats. Even with its flaws, this year’s In The Heights was a far better example of how a good adaptation can use cinema to enhance the story. Adapting a musical into a film is a challenge, and with Dear Evan Hansen, it may have been impossible.
It doesn’t help that the film is far too long, coming in at over two hours, making every off-putting element a painfully prolonged one. All of this may sound needlessly harsh to what may be a well-intentioned story. The message about discussing mental health and finding support through talking openly about suicide are good ones to hang on to, but the message is undercut in how it is conveyed. A prime example is when Evan gives a speech about his departed peer that gets posted on YouTube. Beyond the fact that it is all based on a lie, the title chosen is egregious.
“His Best Friend Died….You Won’t Believe What He Did Next!”
I only wish this title was a joke. Such a choice teeters into being inspiration porn where a bad thing is repackaged into being actually good, just like the film itself. When a title like this is presented with sincerity, despite how shallow and clickbaity it is, it poisons any goodwill the film had going for it. If there was some redemption to be found in the final act of the film with a conclusion that actually tried to reckon with the lies and misplaced approach, perhaps there could be something to remember fondly.
Except that moment never really comes. The ending is both predictable and safe, letting itself completely off the hook. There is no genuine redemption to be found in Dear Evan Hansen, as it is impossible to believe the litany of lies that the film is attempting to convince the audience of.
You can see Dear Evan Hansen in theaters starting Friday, September 24.