A film adaptation of Broadway sensation Dear Evan Hansen was likely inevitable, but on the basis of the resulting film, perhaps the forthcoming reckoning was just as inevitable. Not only is this particular musical difficult to translate in a cinematic context, its basic story represents such a dangerous tonal balance, regardless of the medium, that in retrospect it’s a wonder the original Broadway show was met with such a glowing response.
Vital hot-button topics swirl in this story, from social anxiety disorder, teen bullying, and the vicious ways social media amplifies it all. Expressing that complex emotional terrain in a buoyant, sing-to-the-back-row musical requires the kind of precise tonal needle-threading that Dear Evan Hansen is unable to manage. One could posit that the more intimate naturalism of cinema makes those issues more glaring, but only because the film basically adheres to the syrupy broadness of its source material. The framework of the eponymous character, a chronically anxious and depressed high school student, and the plot surrounding him, which involves a nasty little twist of fate, is framed with such cutesy theatricality that it can only be traced back to its original Broadway creation. The film is bad on its own, but it was also set up to fail from the start.
Much has been made of Ben Platt reprising the Evan Hansen role that he originated on stage, for which he is now demonstrably too old. Yes, the sight of a 28-year-old pulling at the bottom of his shirt and stammering like an insecure teenager is distracting, in no small part because director Stephen Chbosky frequently frames him in awkward close-up, which only further isolates him from everyone else on screen. We know Chbosky can direct this type of material – his 2012 gem The Perks of Being a Wallflower functions as a counterpoint to this film’s broadside manipulation of teenage trauma – but this facile musical set-up leaves him flailing from behind the camera. Besides, any character age quibbles are minor in a film where this would-be teenager swindles a grieving family into believing an entirely fabricated story about their dead son.
Indeed, this very unassuming boy-man stumbles into a situation in which he leads a family to believe he was best friends with their son, who recently committed suicide. He doesn’t intend to mislead them, falling prey to a misunderstanding of ridiculous proportions. The screenplay – by Steven Levenson, adapted from his book for the Broadway version – makes that clear enough to justify initially, though it quickly collapses under the compounding implications of its own design. Most notably, Evan gradually forms a romantic bond with the dead boy’s sister (Kaitlyn Dever), which opens the door to glaring consent issues with which the film makes no attempt to reckon. It’s more concerned with the broad expressions of emotion from each participant in this nasty misunderstanding, including the boy’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), as well as Evan’s hard-working single mother (Julianne Moore). Each of them gets their moment to sing, though the film has an annoying tendency to undercut their big notes in the name of proper film editing, which doesn’t jibe with the staginess these musical numbers require.
To be clear, musicals are not at all prohibited from exploring dark themes, but Dear Evan Hansen isn’t actually dark at all – maudlin, sure, to its final gasping note, but not at all dark. It’s presented as bright-eyed and hopeful via its endless catalogue of soaring musical numbers, most of them set to an insipid beat reminiscent of late-‘90s Christian pop. That these songs are the work of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the reigning kings of Composing Music to Win Awards, recontextualizes their La La Land songs in an altogether unsavory manner. The film’s signature number, “You Will Be Found,” crescendos in some sort of perverted homage to the star-studded “Imagine” video that went viral for all the wrong reasons in 2020.
Evan Hansen goes viral, too, as the film intends to mount an arc in which its hero flirts with villainy as he becomes a star based on the lie he nurtured into a quagmire. The murkiness of the situation is clear, and if the story leaned into that murk it might’ve been able to glean more emotional complexity. Nothing about the continuing cascade of hyper-emo songs permits anything resembling that complexity, instead resulting in a sort of musical dissonance that is staggeringly tone deaf for this material. Most problematic of all is that the songs are presented in a manner that absolutely works in the Broadway context, which likely explains how the show became a sensation: obscuring the plot’s cringeworthy flaws within the fabricated gloss of the proscenium arch. Film offers a far less forgiving context, however, which means this adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen unintentionally functions as a damning exposé of its source material.