Dir: Stephen Chbosky. 12A cert, 137 min
Coming to the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen this late in the day, via its film transfer, it’s hard to see what the fuss was all about. The multiple Tony-winning show starts out tackling the social anxiety of a bullied high-school misfit, the title character played by Ben Platt, who originated this role back in 2014 and should have left it far, far behind. Platt’s a technically accomplished singer, now playing a boy nine years younger than himself, which is only the tip of this singularly creepy iceberg.
We’ll get to the songs in a minute, but Evan’s actions drive the story, and these make a quick leap from “awkward” to “sociopathic”. When a peer called Connor (Colton Ryan) kills himself, a bleak message, printed out in the school library, is found in his possession. It was actually written by Evan to himself, part of an exercise his therapist suggested, but everyone takes it to be a suicide note that Connor, a boy with no obvious friends, has inexplicably addressed to someone else.
Evan is frozen with embarrassment about ’fessing up, as well he might be, but watching him quadruple down on the lies – to Connor’s family, his own mother and everyone in school – pushes him further out on a limb until any last vestiges of viewer sympathy are sacrificed. Platt’s casting compounds the nightmare: he’s not believably a teenager making believable teenage mistakes. He scans instead as a repellent fraud, akin to a graduate incel who’s adopted a fake identity to trick Connor’s sister Zoe (a much more persuasive Kaitlyn Dever) into seeking his shoulder to cry on.
The film was produced, eyebrow-raisingly, by Platt’s father Marc (La La Land) and directed by Stephen Chbosky, whose tender takes on American school life in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and Wonder (2017) understood their characters. He’s a good director, but helpless throughout to solve the monumental Evan problem.
Unsurprisingly, the film perks up whenever Platt’s not on screen. The first musical moment for someone else, which happens to be a fantasy version of Connor before his death, is a goofy breath of fresh air, almost helping you past the fact that a kid who killed himself is singing it. The scene when Evan sits ugly-crying through his mother’s 11th-hour ballad, meanwhile, is redeemed purely by Julianne Moore’s grace and delicacy in singing it.
Connor’s family aren’t badly drawn, either. Dever’s surly truth-telling does battle with Amy Adams’s determination to see the best in people, as the mother clinging to wisps of hope that her son had a secret inner life. Meanwhile, the role of Alana (Amandla Stenberg), a schoolmate who sets up a crowdfunding campaign to address mental illness, has been significantly bolstered from the stage. Even if her new song, The Anonymous Ones, is strumming mid-tempo filler that feels designed to bag an Oscar nomination, that sequence does illuminate her by flashing back to the beginning with a certain sleight-of-hand.
On all fronts, you wish that Dear Evan Hansen had nothing to do with Evan Hansen. There’s something grotesquely self-important about foregrounding his anxiety as a social issue, then using it to justify plotting we can’t swallow, starting with his bizarre use of that communal printer, and then having him lose track of one fib after the next. He’s a terrible, inept, snivelling liar, and the film hardly dares admit how self-serving his behaviour has been from the start, in case we like him even less.
His songs are not exempted from the general disaster area that is Evan. In any well-functioning musical, the characters sing to pour out truths they’re only just learning about themselves. Perhaps the tackiest affront of this piece is that its would-be soaring standout anthem, You Will Be Found, is delivered by Evan at a memorial assembly, and causes him to shoot to internet fame because everyone assumes he was Connor’s best friend.
The song’s entire emotional weight is buttressed by his lies, and when it gets reprised over the end credits, it doesn’t get any more inspiring. Existing fans of the musical will do well to last the course. But make no mistake: this film is 10 tons of Kryptonite for the Broadway-allergic.
In cinemas from tomorrowInternet Explorer Channel Network