The reception that the movie musical Dear Evan Hansen has received so far, on social media and in the press, might make you feel a little protective of the young man at its center: Not Evan himself, a painfully awkward high schooler who rises to popularity over the dead body of a fellow student, but Ben Platt, the talented actor who plays him. Platt delivered a truly exceptional performance in the 2016 Broadway musical on which the film is based. Now he is giving the same star turn, and that’s the problem.
Platt’s fluid, emotional tenor voice is as beautiful as ever, and it’s easy to understand the desire to preserve his original performance. But the very mannerisms that were well scaled to a 1,000-seat house – the hunched posture, the tics, the blurts of speech – are off-putting in cinematic close-up. That’s exacerbated by styling and cinematography that (as has been widely noted and mocked) makes Platt look too old for the role. What the actor needed was a director who could either tone down his stylisation or create a world around him that matched it, but Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) does neither. The film goes beyond preserving Platt’s performance; it mummifies it.
The disconnect between Platt and his surroundings decreases as the movie goes on, but by then the damage has been done. Dear Evan Hansen has an almost farcical set-up: The lonely Evan writes letters to himself as a therapy exercise, and one of them finds its way into the pocket of a disturbed classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan); after Connor’s suicide, the note is discovered by his grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), who mistake it for evidence that their son and Evan were friends. Evan doesn’t correct them – harmlessly, he convinces himself, though he has designs on Connor’s sister, Zoe (a poignantly direct Kaitlyn Dever).
Things snowball from there, especially after his speech at Connor’s memorial goes viral online. (‘You Will Be Found’, the stirring song that captures this moment, delivers exactly the right dose of pop uplift; it’s a heartfelt anthem of false comfort, generic enough that everyone can find themselves in it.)
This story requires that we find Evan lovable from the start, because that affection will be tested as he slides deeper into deception. But the film seems ambivalent about letting us like him, and not just because Chbosky doesn’t have Platt’s back. In adapting their own show – and in response to criticisms that the stage version centers Evan too much and lets him off too easily – screenwriter Steven Levenson and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have altered the story’s ending and built up side characters at the expense of the main one.
The activist Alana (the first-rate Amandla Stenberg) is no longer a comic striver but a well-meaning girl with a secret; the formerly jerky Jared (Nik Dodani) is now sassy, gay and South Asian; Connor is no violent cipher but a struggling, sensitive soul. Any or all of these changes may make sense, but collectively they leave Evan and Platt more isolated than ever.
There’s a lot to like about Dear Evan Hansen, which raises timely questions and features tuneful, smartly crafted songs (including the urgent ‘Waving Through a Window’ and the up-tempo ‘Sincerely Me’, which offers a welcome break from reality). But in a film that seems at odds with itself, you may have to make a choice: You can enter the quasi-normal high-school world that most of the movie sets up, and dismiss Evan as creepy. Or you can approach him with something closer to the unflinching love that the superb Julianne Moore brings to her role as his mother, and root for him despite – or even because of – what Platt is in this movie: a special kind of misfit.
In US theaters Sep 24, UK cinemas Oct 22, and Australian cinemas Dec 9.