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Film Review: Dear Evan Hansen

27 October 21 words: Adam Ridgley

The latest Broadway hit to be adapted for the big screen is an unintentional disturbia flick we didn’t know we wanted this Halloween...

Director: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Ben Platt, Julie Ann Moore, Amy Adams
Running time: 137 minutes

Back in 2015, a coming-of-age stage musical entitled Dear Evan Hansen premiered on Broadway, striking a chord with both critics and audiences, and winning six Tony Awards in the process. In a year that has been a renaissance of sorts for musicals following In the Heights and Annette, what should be a sure-fire hit is a worryingly out of tune and offensive, holly jolly musical about suicide.

Based on a book penned by Steven Levenson, it follows the titular character, who is suffering from anxiety and depression and told to write therapeutic peppy letters to himself. Evan (Ben Platt) wears a cast he got after falling from a tree. He wants to talk to his crush, the guitar-playing Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever) but his anxiety gets in the way. After Zoe’s troubled brother Connor (Colton Ryan), takes one of Evan’s letters, shortly before taking his own life, Evan is propelled into the midst of a family’s suffering when they are led to believe he was the best friend of their late son. Evan plays along with this, gaining fame, glory, and love along the way – all at the expense of Connors memory. 

The problem with adapting Dear Evan Hansen is that the film relies on a faulty pretence that the audience should sympathise with Evan. Connor’s grieving parents – Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) – bring Evan into their lives under the belief he was Connor’s only close friend. Evan doesn’t put up much of a fight against this misconception, which the film aims to justify through his anxiety. All the worse, he only deepens this con by enlisting his friend Jared (Nik Dodani) to create fake email exchanges between Evan and Connor, conveyed through the obscurely upbeat Sincerely Me musical number. The Murphy family completely buy Evans’s ploy, finding comfort in what Evan tells them as he manipulates his way into their lives and into Zoe’s heart. Through his actions, Evan is revealed as a truly unlikable protagonist. 

Unfortunately, in this adaptation, the film seemingly absolves Evan of much of his misdeeds. As per the stage version, much of the soundtrack is made up of cheerful bangers. For the most part, they are well performed and enjoyable, despite an overuse of Glee-style static, corridor walking choreography throughout. However, the Good for You number is notably absent in this adaptation, removing a pivotal moment of consequence for Evans’s behaviour and largely absolving him of his misdeeds. Given the sensitive subject matter, removing such a pivotal number that recontextualises the tone of those earlier tracks removes the self-awareness that made the original version work.

The consequences of Evan’s actions and Connor’s suicide on the Murphy family are criminally underplayed

Much of the spotlight placed on the film has been directed at the decision to cast the now 28-year-old Ben Platt to reprise his role as the teenage Evan Hansen, and unfortunately it is a complete misfire. While Platt was strong in the role on stage, the issues with his look ruin a lot more of the film than you might think. Given Evan’s actions, the primary purpose when casting the role is to emphasise his youth, requiring you to believe this is an anxious kid, naively believing he’s doing what is best for everyone. Immersion is shattered on Platt’s look alone, as you can’t escape the feeling this is a grown man who should know better. The make-up and costumes only serve to give him an uphill battle, with the long, curly, receding hairline and T-shirts sewn closer to Platt’s body to make him look younger, only having the opposite effect.

Performance wise, Platt doesn’t do a great deal to help himself either. Between his constant tics, jittering and strange vocal cracks, the performance feels funnier and more uncomfortable than sympathetic.

Platt is not alone in this regard either, as this talented cast feel uncharacteristically inhuman. Much of this can be attributed to Steven Levenson’s screenplay as very few times is this very sensitive subject matter conveyed with believably written dialogue. Too much of the film is focused on Platt’s Evan, with the nuance of other characters being largely stripped away. Evan’s mother Heidi (Julie Ann Moore) suffers the most here, being more of an understudy throughout despite being the heart and soul of the original. The consequences of Evan’s actions and Connor’s suicide on the Murphy family are criminally underplayed. Although there is a brief sense of this through the family’s rendition of Requiem where Kaitlin Denver’s Zoe particularly shines, it is all too secondary to the supposedly sympathetic perspective of the film’s egocentric protagonist.

Between the offensive, 13 Reasons Why esque depiction of mental health, poorly written screenplay and bizarre casting, Dear Evan Hansen is a disasterpiece of musical film that can only be matched by 2019’s Cats. Yet, despite this, it may be worth a watch for an ironic laugh, an uncomfortably placed banger and to enjoy what may be the most disturbing film of the year.

Did you know? Ben Platt and Colton Ryan are the only two members of the original Broadway cast – Ryan being an understudy in that production – to return for Stephen Chbosky's film.

Dear Evan Hansen is in cinemas now

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