In the weeks since the stage-to-screen musical Dear Evan Hansen premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, the film has endured the exact sort of public mockery that would make its title character’s palms moist with anxiety. The instant critical piñata inspired reviews and a barrage of social-media posts in the tenor of a high-school-cafeteria pile-on, with special attention paid to the “Wait, that’s what it’s about?!” premise and the optics of 27-year-old star Ben Platt still playing the role he originated on Broadway, awkward high-schooler Evan Hansen.
As more people laid eyes on the film, it became something of a sport to see who could conjure the most creative, evocative description of this bizarre man-boy. Vulture’s Alison Willmore described “the casting of an OBVIOUSLY GROWN MAN JUST HUNCHING HIS SHOULDERS” as “an act of sabotage that’s near avant-garde,” and in a particularly lacerating Letterboxd entry, Esther Rosenfield likened Platt’s body language to that of the ratlike vampire Count Orlok from Nosferatu.
There are scores of posts echoing variations on these sentiments, raising the question of how something greenlit by Hollywood on the basis of its bankable widespread popularity could have turned into such a high-profile laughingstock. (A report from The Wrap mentions Universal higher-ups feeling “hurt and disappointed at the early response” to the film.) When a Broadway smash makes the jump to the screen, it’s because executives have decided that the property is broadly likable enough to ensnare a viewership outside the usual theatergoing crowd. Dear Evan Hansen upended that presumption in swift, brutal fashion. But the fact remains that this show, with its foundation in life-affirming uplift, means a lot to a lot of people. The dissonance between its sweeping success on stage and the intense backlash it currently faces as a film has less to do with the elements lost in translation, and more to do with what the filmmakers found.
It’s tempting to write off this disconnect as the product of a self-selecting audience, and suggest that Dear Evan Hansen benefitted from its initial audiences being the tormented 13-year-olds who could most relate to its story. (Just last year, Hamilton’s streaming debut illustrated that when a show taps into a wider demographic, it immediately faces a wider range of critiques.) But that oversimplification about Dear Evan Hansen’s popularity fails to account for the institutional sources of approval — the Broadway production won six Tonys, including Best Musical, and some legacy-publication critics held it up as a triumph. But other coverage complicated that narrative, with some now-vindicated writers calling out the fault lines in the musical’s emotional subtext. Its problems were present from the start, but in the story’s stage incarnation, they were readily ignored or forgiven. In its film incarnation, they’ve overtaken the release and eclipsed everything else.
The truth is, there is moral rot at the center of Dear Evan Hansen, a story about the way one boy’s suicide gives another boy a reason to live. That’s the most generous possible phrasing of the stupefying plot, in which the withdrawn Evan gets caught up in a fib about his invented friendship with his late classmate Connor (Colton Ryan). The action starts out plausibly enough, as Evan passively allows Connor’s grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) to misinterpret a note found in their son’s pocket, then lets the confusion slide when he sees how happy it makes them. Before long, Evan veers into calamitous territory, as he gins up a full history of good times with Connor, inadvertently sparks a nationwide movement of mental-health awareness, and most reprehensible of all, uses his influence to strike up a tentative romance with the dead boy’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever).
Though Evan feels bad about his borderline-pathological choices, consumed by guilt and panic once his mother (Julianne Moore) starts to suss out the truth, the script barely holds it against him. After a few shots of disapproving stares, the lied-to family pretty much gets over it, and Evan ends up with Zoe anyway. The script glosses right over the fact that Evan Hansen happens to be a real creep. After laboriously displaying his vulnerable, sensitive side, the story takes the audience’s affection for granted. The lyrics, from songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, offer him comfort and redemption. “You will be found” breaks out as the show’s central mantra, like an It Gets Better campaign, retooled for depressed young heterosexuals.
For adolescents coping with isolation or alienation, it’s a potent message by design, calculated for maximum catharsis. (That goes double for junior belters; Evan exposes the sensitive soul he hides from the world during the musical numbers, able to be his best and fullest self through his tremulous vibrato.) There’s more than a whiff of manipulation to the ruthless way the show induces pathos, as if starting from the swell of tearful salvation and reverse-engineering from there. Its nearly two and a half hours of plateau rather than build, setting out to yank on viewers’ heartstrings from the self-pitying opener, “Waving Through the Window” and maintaining that grip through each successive scene. The songs, which all operate on the single setting of “soaring and anthemic,” give away the creators’ aspirations of creating non-stop feels. With the exception of an upbeat ditty that sees Evan picturing himself playing Dance Dance Revolution with Connor, every track strives for an air of the climactic. The effect is exhausting.
On stage, audiences can give melodrama more leeway. It’s a prerequisite for a medium where people express themselves by spontaneously breaking into song. The theatrical environment sells the stories-tall tear-jerking on the merit of its intimacy and immediacy, two areas where live theater has the edge on the relative sobriety of cinema. The curious case of this show’s drastic change in fortunes can be attributed in no small part to the formal transition from stage to screen, and the according shift in suspension of disbelief. Without the intoxicating energy of a live cast mere feet away, everything becomes too clear for its own good, like being at a club when the lights come on. On film, this story’s foundation of cynical button-pushing is laid bare.
That’s far from the only shortcoming accentuated in adaptation. For all its out-of-whack notions about human behavior, Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen was submitted as a more grounded breed of musical, a look at Real Issues facing Real Kids. The film tries to stick to this basis through its lack of dancing, glitz, and the grandeur of scale associated with Broadway. (It also comes through in the music, which has more in common with buffed-to-a-shine radio pop than good ol’ showtunes.) Apart from that wildly misconceived DDR bit, the actors saunter around charmless suburban interiors in place of choreography, the anonymous town’s middle-class homes and industrial-style school devoid of personality. But Pasek and Paul still need one kid’s moody teen years to carry weighty narrative stakes, and without the theatre’s built-in exuberance, the film has to communicate the desired intensity through strange alternate means.
Platt’s technically accomplished, otherwise disastrous performance starts to make more sense as an act of compensation. His veiny, strangulated delivery while singing is the only way he can convey his inner turmoil, working against the wooden inertia of his posture and blocking. Director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) similarly struggles to create a scale sufficient to fill the silver screen. At his corniest, he illustrates that Evan has gone viral by flinging a flurry of smartphone video responses through a black vacuum until they coalesce and form an Instagram photo. As Evan searches for hints of beauty in his school’s everyday drabness — Chbosky’s aesthetic could be fairly described as “the ‘before’ part of a commercial for mood-altering medication” — the film gets stuck in the banality he’s trying to escape.
It’s possible that an impending box-office windfall will cast these aspersions as the futile objections of grumpy olds who are out of touch with the mainstream audience’s wants. That’s how things played out with Pasek and Paul’s also roundly ridiculed, still fabulously lucrative Hugh Jackman musical The Greatest Showman. Though that film’s detractors levied charges that it was a hollow story full of fake feel-goodery (which is as close as this songwriting team gets to an authorial hallmark), that didn’t stop “This Is Me” from taking on a second life as a karaoke staple.
If cinema is, as Roger Ebert claimed, a machine that generates empathy, Dear Evan Hansen is well-oiled and operating at maximum capacity. Pasek and Paul push Ebert’s famed metaphor to its breaking point, where it begins to sound more like a diss than anything else. When doing the delicate work of courting compassion, that bloodless mechanical efficiency only leaves a person feeling used-up, and just plain used.
Dear Evan Hansen is out now in theaters.