Dir: Stephen Chbosky. Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams. 12A, 137 minutes.
What shocked me most about Dear Evan Hansen is that, despite all the visceral repulsion squared at Ben Platt for playing the musical adaptation’s teenaged lead, the actor was only 26 years old when filming started. You’d think, from the reaction on social media, that he’d wormed himself out of a nearby crypt in order to steal the role of a luckless high schooler caught up in a terrible lie, chirping songs penned by La La Land and The Greatest Showman’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Most of the cast of Riverdale are in their mid-to-late-twenties, and it’s hardly the primary complaint anyone would have about the show. Adults have always played teenagers, long before even Stockard Channing donned her Pink Ladies jacket in Grease, aged 33.
The problem with Dear Evan Hansen, which mostly takes place in a high-school setting, with Platt as the desperately lonely Evan, is one of self-sabotage. Every creative decision feels designed to make Platt appear significantly older than he already is, like Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum were made to look in the 21 Jump Street movies. The lighting on him is unforgivably harsh, creating lines in his features where there were no lines before. His hair looks off-puttingly stiff and crunchy, while the pounds of make-up give him the pale, sweaty pallor of someone in the middle of an interrogation. And Platt performs the role of Evan – depressed and socially anxious – as an overly mannered series of tics.
He picks at his fingers, he fiddles with his shirt, he trips over his words. Whenever he’d run, his practised stiffness reminded me of a video I once saw of a raccoon stealing food from a dog’s bowl, as it galumphs away on two legs hoping no one noticed the kibble flowing out of its paws. But, in Platt’s defence, his only mistake is one of simple maladjustment. He originated the role in 2014, remained on board for three years after, and even won a Tony Award for the effort. The performance is so ingrained in him now that it probably never crossed his mind that what works when you’re trying to project youthful awkwardness to the back of an auditorium plays like a Saturday Night Live parody when the camera’s close enough to pick up every muscle contortion.
And it’s a deathblow of a mistake for Dear Evan Hansen because so much of its story relies on how much leniency you’re willing to give its central character. As written by Steven Levenson, the musical is meant to expose how crushing adolescent loneliness can be, albeit in a way that stretches credulity and normal human function. Evan is in therapy, and part of his therapy demands that he writes letters to himself as a form of self-empowerment and emotional discharge. One of these letters ends up in the hands of social pariah Connor (Colton Ryan), leading Evan to fear that all his most intimate thoughts are about to be exposed to the rest of the school.
Instead, he’s called into the principal’s office a few days later, where Connor’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) inform him that their son died by suicide with Evan’s letter in his possession. They’ve assumed it contains Connor’s final words, the last trace of a child they’re desperate to understand. Adams is particularly convincing as the kind of woman you just can’t say no to – and, at first, it’s understandable why Evan might go along with the delusion, just to soothe a mother’s grief. But what starts out as something fairly innocuous grows increasingly sociopathic when he starts dressing up his crush on Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) as the bonds of mutual grief. It only gets worse from there.
Much like Platt’s performance, you can imagine such high stakes working a little better on Broadway or the West End, where there is no ceiling to dramatic strife. But director Stephen Chbosky seems to have only reluctantly accepted Dear Evan Hansen as a musical, and not a repeat of his teen drama The Perks of Being a Wallflower. There’s little choreography or visual flair to speak of. Both Adams’s role, and that of Julianne Moore, playing Evan’s mother, have been reduced to flashy A-list cameos. Dever gets to shine as a sibling dealing with the complex grief of losing someone who abused and terrorised her most of her life. Amandla Stenberg benefits from an expanded role and a new song, “The Anonymous Ones”, while playing an overachiever whose hidden struggles with depression add some complexity to the story. But when all roads lead back to Evan, and to Platt’s misstep of a performance, the film becomes one giant gamble that’s quite disastrously failed to pay off.