With “Dear Evan Hansen,” a divisive Broadway musical sticks its neck out in movie form, trusting a shelf full of Tonys to sweep it from improbable stage success to mainstream glory — except when does that work? In a year with a well-above-average number of musicals popping up on the big screen (“In the Heights,” “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” “West Side Story,” “Cyrano,” “Tick, Tick … Boom!”), “Dear Evan Hansen” is the farthest below average in terms of actual merit: a curve-crashing after-school special, dressed up with so-so songs (not so much show tunes as lightweight pop-music imitations), about how people process tragedy in the age of oversharing.
That said, your mileage may vary. The movie pushes all sorts of buttons — or “triggers,” as the kids are calling them these days. Where some audiences feel seen, others are bound to take offense, and that split is what makes the Steven Levenson-written show (with music and lyrics by “La La Land” duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) such a fascinating phenomenon. And who better to direct the film version than “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” director Steven Chbosky, a YA novelist with a proven track record for capturing the teenage outsider experience (though Logan Lerman always struck me as a little too with-it to be a wallflower).
“Dear Evan Hansen” rubbed me wrong onstage, and it doesn’t sit well with me now, despite a few smart improvements to the material. Baked into its DNA are three of the sins I find most irksome about young-adult entertainment. For starters, it uses suicide as a device. Self-harm is too serious a subject to be treated insincerely, whereas Levenson invents a character, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), has him take his life offstage, and then uses that tragedy to ignite the plot. Second, pretty much everything that follows hinges on one of those elaborate misunderstandings that could be instantly clarified by a moment’s honesty. Here, awkward, attention-starved Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) allows the boy’s grieving family to believe that he and Connor were best friends, cozying up to the dead kid’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) and getting intimate with his sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever).
Last but not least, the film casts actors born in the previous century as high school students. As in “Prom,” where the characters all looked old enough to have mortgages and children of their own, Platt, Dever et al., don’t convincingly pass as teens — and I say this as someone who adored Dever in “Booksmart” (in which she played a graduating senior). Actually, Dever is the best thing about this adaptation, which feels slightly less creepy in the lied-about-knowing-your-brother-to-worm-my-way-into-your-heart department, if only because Dever’s so good at balancing Zoe’s strength and vulnerability that the situation doesn’t read as a nearly 30-year-old creep manipulating a minor.
Just how old is Evan Hansen supposed to be anyway? There’s talk of essay contests and scholarships to pay for college, but Platt’s body language suggests someone much younger, though you could chalk that up to his way of capturing the character’s social anxiety, depression and possible autism (all of which are left undiagnosed here). We’re also told which medications he’s taking — Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Ativan “as needed” — which could be clues for those familiar with those drugs.
The movie opens with Evan freaking out about the first day of a new school year. Whereas an awful lot of the stage show takes place in Evan’s bedroom, Chbosky moves him through that familiar corridor of angst that is a locker-lined hallway and into a high-stress pep rally as the character sings the feelings he’s hiding on the inside — about being invisible, inadequate, insecure. No matter how popular most people feel in high school, pretty much anyone can relate to “Waving Through a Window.” But will they recognize themselves in Platt’s performance? The actor plays it agonizingly uptight, as if recoiling from the very peers whose attention he craves.
Overworked and under-available, his mom (Julianne Moore) has sent him to a therapist, who suggested the writing exercise that gives the film its title: Evan is supposed to address letters to himself each day, a strategy that goes south when one accidentally falls into Connor’s hands hours before the character commits suicide. His parents find the message and assume that Connor wrote it — a device we might accept in a classic comedy of errors, but which is hard to stomach in a more serious drama.
“Connor didn’t write this,” Evan tries to tell them, but they insist on interpreting the note as Connor’s last words. Maybe that happens. Certainly, the motives for suicide are rarely clear, leaving loved ones to deal with grief in their own complex ways. Adams is especially good at conveying Cynthia Murphy’s need to make excuses for Connor, to believe her son was a better person than others remember. In the movie, this desire compels Evan to go along with the charade, but never quite explains how deeply he commits, counterfeiting emails from Connor to make the family feel better.
Levenson has retooled the Murphy family dynamic somewhat, turning Mora’s character into a stepdad while preserving Zoe’s initial skepticism. She’s wounded by the way her brother treated her, as Stevenson makes the daring (but not entirely unreasonable) claim that “Connor was a bad person,” as Zoe points out — another way the script justifies Evan’s deception, by giving Connor’s mourners a more sympathetic version to remember.
In the stage show, Evan’s classmates were nearly as flawed as he was. Jared, his only friend at school (a “family friend” at that), was obnoxiously homophobic — which could be realistic, but runs counter to the faux-progressive values fans read into the musical. In the movie, Jared is gay (represented by “Atypical” actor Nik Dodani), which makes his jokes in the “Sincerely, Me” song land differently, and there are huge posters plastered around school with slogans such as “Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common. Let’s celebrate it.” The screenplay preserves its cynicism about how the social-media generation exploits tragedy (as when the kids who bullied Connor pose for selfies in front of his locker), but softens Alana’s character.
Reconceived as a cheerleader and an extracurricular overachiever who identifies with Connor’s mental condition, as opposed to a narcissist looking to ride his tragedy to glory, the new-and-improved Alana elevates the tone of the entire film. As played by “The Hate U Give” star Amandla Stenberg, she demonstrates the movie’s thesis that everyone — even those who appear to coast through high school, seemingly comfortable in their own skin — struggles with moments of depression and self-doubt. More impressive still, Stenberg co-wrote the song her character uses to make that point: “The Anonymous Ones.”
It’s one of two original numbers added for the movie, though the other — “A Little Closer,” by Pasek and Paul — isn’t especially good. Chbosky deploys it well, incorporating the song (which Ryan sings as Colton) into an extended atonement sequence, which is clearly the movie’s way of having Evan redeem himself. And it works. Even if the song’s quite forgettable, Evan emerges a more mature character. The team behind the film haven’t necessarily fixed all that was wrong with the show, but they’ve been listening, at least, and that’s a start.
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