Content warning: suicide, mental health issues
Following the stage show’s six Tony Award wins in 2017 — including best musical — all eyes were once on “Dear Evan Hansen,” seen as the future of contemporary musical theater. It has since fallen from grace; the anxiously anticipated film adaptation of “Dear Evan Hansen” entirely misses the mark, serving up a cringeworthy film that makes headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The story revolves around high schooler Evan Hansen (Ben Platt), who suffers from social anxiety as he struggles to understand himself and those around him. When his mother (Julianne Moore) insists he writes a letter to himself to encourage him to be more outgoing, school outcast Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) takes it, leaving it in his pocket when he commits suicide soon after. After his death, Connor’s family, including his mother Cynthia (Amy Adams), stepfather Larry (Danny Pino) and Evan’s longtime crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), reach out to him. Soon after, Evan is caught in a web of lies as he is mistaken for one of Connor’s best friends, helping the Murphy family process their grief and see how far he would go just to be accepted somewhere.
The biggest failure of “Dear Evan Hansen” revolves around the titular character’s unshakably dislikeable nature, as Ben Platt, now 28, is entirely unbelievable as a high school student. Occupying the title role, Platt’s Evan becomes even more hateable as part of his relationship with Zoe, as Dever’s earnest portrayal of a grieving high school girl makes any of his advances toward her come across as creepy and unsettling.
In trying to have Evan own up to his mistakes and wanting him to become someone the audience comes to love, the movie’s central focus becomes the preservation of the likeability of Platt’s character, so much so that it produces the opposite effect. Any changes made for the film in an attempt to curtail the pushback against Evan’s actions (a common response to the stage version) ultimately feel suffocating, as the audience can never escape Evan’s point of view.
For a film billed as a champion of mental health awareness for teens, “Dear Evan Hansen” comes with a plot devoid of actual meaning. While the depiction of teenagers struggling with their mental health is so central to its plot, it is often done in a stigmatizing, offensive and out-of-touch way.
Characters across the board are shells of what they once were in the stage version; Alana (Amandla Stenberg), once a representation of self-centered, performative activism in the digital age, is dulled down to depict the average academically high-achieving teenager secretly living with mental illness. Evan’s closest confidante in the musical, Jared (Nik Dodani) is also a significantly less integral character to the film, as he appears in the first third of the movie, sings his song and is never seen again. These hollow characters — combined with an increasingly muddled plot — make viewers feel every minute of the film’s 137-minute run time. That is to say, it truly goes on “For Forever.”
As its one saving grace, the movie’s songs are incredibly well done, even if they contextually make less sense in the film, as the vocal prowess of the cast is surprisingly better than other movie musicals of similar quality.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a poorly executed attempt at Oscar bait, hoping to replicate the Broadway production’s Tony Award sweep in 2018 with similar flair. Unfortunately, not all shows can transcend the medium in which they were produced. It seems as if the story of “Dear Evan Hansen” is simply not meant for a film format — its absurd storyline and musical numbers can’t escape the inherent campiness of live theater.