I'm absolutely flabbergasted after seeing Dear Evan Hansen. How is this movie real? Did anyone realize how utterly misguided almost every single creative choice was? It's based on a popular Broadway musical that I have not seen and, after the movie, don't want to. Running the longest 137 minutes you'll have all year, this adaptation is so annoyingly contrived and desperate to yank tears from your eyes that it becomes maddening very quickly. Director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Wonder) has good intentions that nevertheless fall flat.
Ben Platt, too old to convincingly play a teenager and looking it, stars as Evan Hansen. He's a depressed, socially-isolated kid whose nurse mom (Julianne Moore) is constantly taking extra shifts at the hospital. Evan's therapist has assigned him to write letters to himself as an exercise in mood boosting. One of those letters falls into the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a drug-addicted, emotionally volatile peer. This happens right after he inexplicably offers to sign the cast on Evan's arm. Connor commits suicide, and his mother and stepfather, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), find the note on his body. That, plus seeing their dead son's name on the cast, convince them that Evan was his only friend.
Most people in this already unlikely situation would simply clear the air. Not Evan. Seeing how happy Cynthia and Larry – as well as Connor's sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), on whom he has a crush – are at the thought of Connor having had a friend, he chooses to lie. And the more he lies, the more this family takes him in, giving him the kind of life he wants. Evan becomes increasingly popular at school, too, thanks to good old-fashioned pity for the poor kid who lost his best friend. Fellow student Alana (Amandla Stenberg) then convinces him to join her in creating “The Connor Project,” a teen mental health awareness initiative.
To reiterate, this is a musical, so characters intermittently break out into song. Teen suicide presented as a toe-tapper!
Let's go back for a second. Just to hammer this home, Evan lies to a grieving family over and over again, making them think Connor had moments of happiness via a close friendship. That's cruel. As you could surmise, they learn the truth in the third act and are utterly devastated. This is the guy Dear Evan Hansen wants us to empathize with. The truth is, he's a creep. What he does is so inexcusable that I didn't care about him, I wanted to run away from him as soon as possible. That the movie tries to redeem him at the end is just insult added to injury. Connor's family will deal with the scars Evan created for years. He is not deserving of our sympathy.
Compounding that problem is Ben Platt's one-note performance. Aside from being too old to play Evan, he's grating with his overly obvious “awkward nerd” routine. Sporting a bad haircut and a perpetual hangdog expression, the actor doesn't seem to realize that what worked for him on the stage reads very differently when photographed. To paraphrase advice that Robert Downey, Jr. gives Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder, you should never go full nerd – unless you're making a broad comedy, of course, which Dear Evan Hansen most certainly is not.
A story addressing themes of adolescent mental health is very necessary in our current time. Chbosky and screenwriter Steven Levenson hit that note so hard, though, that the movie begins to feel preachy. Rather than integrating it organically into the plot, Dear Evan Hansen approaches it with all the subtlety of an Afterschool Special, albeit one occasionally interrupted by flatly-staged musical numbers. The last half-hour of the picture is just scene after scene of people crying as they try to come to terms with both Connor's suicide and the depression that “caused” Evan to behave irresponsibly. Any potentially useful message is buried beneath heaps of maudlin sentiment.
Adams and Moore are both typically good, and Kaitlyn Dever proves a real bright spot, bringing tenderness and authenticity to Zoe. She has the qualities that Platt is sorely lacking. Dear Evan Hansen wants very badly to make an important statement about depression and anxiety. It even contains onscreen text directing people to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline – text that is buried after the end credits, where few viewers are likely to see it.
That is beyond appropriate for such an inept film.
out of four
Dear Evan Hansen is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references. The running time is 2 hour and 17 minutes.