One major purpose of a Broadway movie adaptation is to give audiences access to a buzzed-about show who might not otherwise get to see it. Growing up in rural Kansas, movie musicals were my only exposure to shows like Chicago, Hairspray and Sweeney Todd. They’re still the only form in which I’ve seen In the Heights, Hamilton and The Prom.
But film is a different medium. Theater is immersive. Cinema is always going to change that interaction; the experience can’t ever be a direct translation. With less to distract you, a show’s story and themes become more centralized and scrutinized, for better or worse.
All of this is to say, I want to give Dear Evan Hansen the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible its themes of resilience, belonging and vulnerability feel more inspirational and less forced on stage. I’m sure Ben Platt made a more convincing teenager when he played one in 2016 than he does in 2021. But none of that changes the fact that Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation is an awkward, disturbing mess that makes you question the integrity of the show it’s based on.
Platt reprises his Broadway role as Evan Hansen, an anxious, lonely teenager with a suspiciously receding hairline. Evan starts the film with a broken arm, and writes letters to himself as a therapy assignment (we never meet his therapist, but I sure would like to). Evan prints off one of these self-motivation letters at school, but it’s stolen by his bullying classmate Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), who then grabs a sharpie and scrawls his name across Evan’s cast.
The next day, Evan learns Connor committed suicide, and his note was found in Connor’s possession. Connor’s grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) assume the boys were friends. When Evan fails to correct them, the Murphys assimilate him into their family, where Evan connects with Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), his crush. The student body’s reaction to Connor’s death also brings Evan unexpected social cache, as their “friendship” becomes the cornerstone of teen activist Alana’s (Amandla Stenberg) efforts to create a memorial.
The plot I’ve described could’ve been lifted from a Michael Haneke psychodrama, one where a lonely teenager displays sociopathic tendencies after his classmate’s suicide unexpectedly nets him his greatest desires. But rather than dark, probing arthouse drama, Dear Evan Hansen is bright and inspirational. We’re meant to sympathize with Evan, despite his insane behavior.
This issue is papered over by Greatest Showman creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s manipulative, bombastic songs. The music’s messages about being fully seen, and how we’re all struggling underneath our curated exteriors, attempt to distract from the troubling realities of the story. That may work onstage, where the dazzle of live performance can cover a lot. But Chbosky’s flat direction here doesn’t give us anything to consider in terms of cinematography, set design or choreography. We’re just left with Evan’s piling lies, and an equally growing pile of people he’s poised to make hurt more than they already do.
Almost everything about Dear Evan Hansen feels ill-advised, from Platt’s casting to the movie’s very existence. But it also makes plain the flaws that existed in the show to begin with, ones that somehow didn’t keep it from winning a Tony for Best Musical in 2017. Dear Evan Hansen, much like its main character, coasted for a long time on misplaced good will. The outright failure of the film version feels like it’s lifting that veil, if only unintentionally.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is in theaters Friday.