When Dear Evan Hansen premiered on Broadway in 2016, it drew near-universal praise from New York’s theater critics. Ben Platt, playing an anxious teenager who becomes an internet celebrity after misrepresenting his role in a local tragedy, was showered with plaudits, and the show ended up winning six Tony Awards—the most of the season—including Best Musical and a leading-actor trophy for Platt. A film version was thus hardly a surprise. But when the director Stephen Chbosky’s extremely faithful adaptation premiered as the opening-night movie of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival—the movie will be released in theaters this Friday—the reviews that followed were … broadly bad.
What changed? It wasn’t the story or the songs. Dear Evan Hansen the film is written by Steven Levenson, who wrote the narrative of the Broadway show, and largely retains the score, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (a few of the least compelling numbers have been cut; others have been added). And while the cast around Platt is mostly filled out by movie stars rather than Broadway veterans, the performances from actors such as Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, and Amandla Stenberg are uniformly solid. Did something get lost in translation, or is this an emperor’s-new-clothes moment revealing that Dear Evan Hansen never was any good in the first place?
The answer is probably a little of both. I saw Dear Evan Hansen at the Second Stage Theater early in its off-Broadway run, when the show had just started to establish its word-of-mouth acclaim. My reaction to the show was mixed—but I vastly preferred what I saw then to the movie, which is pretty much an unmitigated disaster. In both theatrical and cinematic forms, Dear Evan Hansen is a clever but convoluted story that utterly fails to resolve the thorny morality tale at its center. But where the live version could paper over those narrative shortcomings with inventive stagecraft, the movie can’t get around the moribund visuals of its musical numbers—which look extremely staid on the big screen—as well as the deadly mistake of recasting Platt, now age 27, as an adolescent.
The setup of Dear Evan Hansen is knotty, but to summarize: Evan Hansen (played by Platt) is a high schooler with severe depression and social anxiety who, on the advice of his therapist, writes himself motivational letters every morning. A bullying classmate, Connor (Colton Ryan), steals the letter and later dies by suicide. When Connor is found with a note addressed to Evan, the former’s family assumes that the two were friends, and Evan encourages the lie partly to ease their suffering and partly to build a connection with Connor’s sister, Zoe (Dever). Evan’s fabrication spirals out of control when it spreads online and turns him into an inspirational internet celebrity.
Subsequently, Evan’s very real depression turns into bite-size, shareable content that bounces around Facebook and Instagram, speaking to strangers around the world. The first act ends with the showstopping number “You Will Be Found,” a musical version of Evan’s speech about his faux brotherhood with Connor, and in both the theatrical and movie versions, I appreciate the irony at work in that song. It’s the kind of fist pumping that Pasek and Paul (who also worked on La La Land and The Greatest Showman) excel at, so within the world of the show it’s believable as a viral hit, but it’s also a clever jab at the way authentic emotions are packaged for the world of feel-good, easily digestible online media.
But the second half of the show (and of the film) doesn’t successfully address Evan’s monstrous falsehoods once they come out. The writers want the audience to stay on Evan’s side, but I’ve always found it hard. Certainly it was easier to do while watching the stage production, where the emotional arc of the storytelling comes primarily through songs that overrule moral logic, and the characters being deceived are much smaller figures. But on the big screen, the story’s central lie feels fairly skin-crawling. Chbosky shoots most of the musical numbers close up on the characters, and this has the effect of somehow making Evan feel less sincere—his tearful, sung exhortations come off as duplicitous rather than actually apologetic.
It doesn’t help that Platt appears comically old for the part. Yes, 20-somethings have been playing teens on camera since time immemorial, but the way the crew styled the actor somehow aged him, making Platt look like a journalist trying to infiltrate high school, Never Been Kissed–style. I understand the impulse to retain a performer who, onstage, was crucial to the show’s early success, but other actors have played the role on Broadway to good reviews, and plenty of talented teenagers probably could have taken up the mantle.
Still, even if Platt could have been magically frozen in amber for filming, I’m not sure Dear Evan Hansen would have succeeded. Musicals are never easy to translate to film, especially ones that are so contemporary and reliant on ballads, with little elaborate choreography. Buying into a world of singing and dancing is easier when the unreality is heightened—if the movie is a period piece, or if blown-out dance numbers are part of the spectacle. But Dear Evan Hansen is largely about people with cellphones, wearing clothes that look like they’re from the Gap, singing softly about their feelings to one another with nary a high kick in sight. The realism of the film only highlights how unsatisfying the plot is.
This adaptation was probably doomed from the start, no matter who was going to play the lead. The combination of high expectations and some of the show’s baked-in narrative shortcomings means Dear Evan Hansen would have needed a miracle to land in cinemas with anything but a thud. Instead, almost everything imaginable has gone wrong on the journey from stage to screen, and the result is a film that isn’t even “so bad it’s good,” like some other recent musical movies; mostly, it’s just painful to watch.