Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson’s Broadway stage musical, Dear Evan Hansen, already felt a few years past its due date in 2016. Ben Platt, who starred in the original run and returns for this new film adaptation, already felt a little too old for the role in 2016. Live theater does wonders to mask sappy, dated material with the illusive immersion of being there, in the moment and right in front of the actors. Dear Evan Hansen isn’t a Cats-level misfire, but it’s certainly not deserving of an encore.
The titular Evan Hansen is a depressed teenager without any friends. No seriously, not even his mom (Julianne Moore) wants to hang out with him, and it’s easy to see why. Unlike most teen movies since the early 80s and beyond, Evan is an exaggerated social pariah to the point of not even having a small group of nerdy friends, while pining to have the calm confidence of the cool kids. Is he simply a loner? Just too awkward? Looks like a 30-year-old dressed as a puppet in order to fool unsuspecting children? It’s hard to say because the movie waves its insecurities away with song lyrics and expository dialogue insisting that Evan simply doesn’t click with anyone. That is, until the spotlight is thrust upon him.
This happens when another outcast in the school, Connor (Colton Ryan), commits suicide. He happens to have a note on him addressed “Dear Evan Hansen,” leading his mother (Amy Adams) and father (Danny Pino) to believe their son wrote it. Only, he didn’t. He swiped the note from Evan, who wrote it to himself as a therapeutic method, but rather than admit he didn’t write the note, Evan spirals into a despicably uncomfortable series of lies and manipulations to keep the ruse going.
Part of the reason he goes this far is because he’s lacking a solid family unit. His father left him, and his mother works all the time to pay the bills. To make matters more pitiful, Evan has long had a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), and pretending to be her late brother’s secret friend is too tempting for someone who presents as an empathetic, misguided youth who is somehow also a psychopath, for some reason. The reason being we need a plot that moves, come what may.
On the one hand, the film is clear about how deeply challenging and traumatizing the teen experience can be. By all means, give us flawed adolescent characters, they make the cinema a massive box of tissues for all who relate. This is actually where the extra musical touch comes in handy, in which Evan and others break out into somber and swelling song when their mumble-core fails them, allowing the emotion to take center stage. And the music, along with most of the film’s technical efforts, works far better here than what’s being said or sung.
It’s just a hard-pressed job to find someone who can connect easily to Evan Hansen, a confusing and inconsistently monstrous character written to be effusive and charming when the audience needs to buy into his expected upswing in popularity, which only begs the question why he struggled to make even a single friend before this situation. The one exception, here, at least a believable friendship forms perhaps on a curve, is his unlikely kinship with school overachiever Alana (Amandla Stenberg). A film in which two teens platonically bond over their shared mental health challenges is one of the few areas where the writing comes off as modern, or at least closer to the right decade.
Joining the 2012 tropes is an eye-rolling second act subplot in which Evan’s “speech song” goes viral. Ah, the days when you wouldn’t believe what happened next. It’s been almost a decade since this anything-goes-viral era truly peaked, and director Stephen Chbosky and Levenson (who returns for the screenplay) had an opportunity here to subvert this idea with something unique and more representative of that time and place. Instead, it’s a painfully slothful relic of a bygone internet trying to fit in with 2021 attitudes, and the two just don’t go together without a little extra effort.
By the time the ending rolls around after over two hours of repetitive hand-wringing over a reveal we all know is bound to happen eventually—another narrative choice that belongs in a film from many years ago—Dear Evan Hansen reaches a cul-de-sac of consequences it bizarrely runs out of time to satisfyingly address. So it simply ends without its central character properly dealing with what truly ails him. Perhaps that’s the point, as high school doesn’t realistically offer much closure for anyone who suffers through it, except in the movies, of course. But would it have been such a sin to give the viewers who watch this all the way through for whatever reason a chance at feeling something other than misery?