Making an ungainly leap from Broadway stage to movie screen, the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” is the story of a liar, an accomplished fabulist who uses a troubled classmate’s self-harm to gain popularity. Yet the movie (I assume in keeping with its Tony Award-winning predecessor, which I have not seen) wants us not only to sympathize with this character, but ultimately forgive him. That’s a very big ask.
It’s not simply that Ben Platt, who is about to turn 28 and reprises his stage role as Evan, is as unconvincing a high-school senior as John Travolta was in “Grease.” Gripped by crippling social anxiety, Evan is a sweaty-palmed mess, his darting eyes and coiled body language repelling other students as he sings lustily about feeling unseen. (The songs are mainly by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.) When a fellow outcast, the volatile Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), takes his own life while in possession of one of Evan’s therapeutic, self-addressed letters, Connor’s devastated mother and stepfather (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) become convinced that Evan was Connor’s best friend.
Rather than correct this simple misunderstanding, Evan begins to relish its benefits, going so far as to enlist an acquaintance (a wry Nik Dodani) to help fabricate an email exchange between Connor and himself. Welcomed into the luxurious Murphy home, he grows closer to Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), on whom he has a crush. Students seek him out at school and his speech at Connor’s memorial goes viral. With each embellishment, the attention and social-media likes increase; only in the trusting eyes of Connor’s mother do we see the cruelty of Evan’s deception.
Written by Steven Levenson and awkwardly directed by Stephen Chbosky (who’s no stranger to teen drama), “Dear Evan Hansen” is a troubling work, one that constructs a devious, superficial and at times comedic plot around adolescent mental-health issues. The dialogue, interspersed with hilariously on-the-nose song lyrics, is trite; yet the story shines a useful spotlight on the internet’s traitorous turns and the way social media exploits tragedy. In one telling scene, students pose for selfies at Connor’s flower-bedecked locker, conveniently forgetting this was someone they had previously disliked and ostracized.
Even with its stretched-out running time and emotionally coercive structure (there will be weeping, no doubt), this peculiar picture has a few bright spots, including a luminous Julianne Moore as Evan’s overworked single mother. Moore might disappear for much of the movie, but her one song is so genuinely moving it only underscores the emotional artifice surrounding it. Also notable is Amandla Stenberg, playing the resident school activist and moral conscience, who brings an unforced longing to a song about anonymity that she helped write. But the film’s most squandered opportunity resides in Dever’s nuanced portrayal of Zoe, whose exhaustion over the family’s obsessive attention to Connor’s needs highlights the strain of being the sibling of a troubled child. When she admits to being afraid of Connor, the moment is brushed aside as she, too, is duped by Evan’s fairy-tale portrait of a loving brother.
Treacly and manipulative, “Dear Evan Hansen” turns villain into victim and grief into an exploitable vulnerability. It made me cringe.
Dear Evan Hansen
Rated PG-13 for troubling themes and shameful behavior. Running time: 2 hour 17 minutes. In theaters.