DEAR EVAN HANSEN is directed by Stephen Chbosky. The film stars Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Danny Pino, and Colton Ryan. The film is based on the 2015 musical, with Platt reprising his role.
Evan Hansen is a teen attending high school who suffers from several social disorders. He’s friendless and looked down upon by classmates. When Connor, a mentally troubled classmate who Evan encountered a few times, commits suicide, the boy’s parents find solace in Evan, not realizing the two didn’t have an actual friendship. When “the lie” gets out of control, Evan is faced with the conundrum of keeping up appearances as events bring out the best in the school and the community, or telling the truth and facing up to the potential consequences.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN is the latest in a long line of feature films based on stage musicals, and despite its good intentions and strong message, the experience ultimately falls flat. There’s no denying this is a talented cast and the story isn’t afraid to tackle strong subject manner, but a horribly uneven tone, questionable writing, bland characters, and unnecessarily long running time are just a few of the things working against the final product. While I won’t deny some aspects held my attention, it’s simply not a good film.
Where DEAR EVAN HANSEN does succeed even if it comes up short in nearly every other area is its casting, including icons like Amy Adams and Julianne Moore, both of whom bring something different to the table. Even Amandla Stenberg (THE HUNGER GAMES, THE DARKEST MINDS) makes an appearance (when is she going to find the role she deserves in a good film?) in a supporting role. The true standout cast member is Kaitlyn Dever, who portrays the sister of the film’s suicide victim, and gives the movie’s strongest performance. DEAR EVAN HANSEN may be a disaster, but when this beautiful young lady is on camera, I was paying attention. She’s the brightest shining light in what’s otherwise a mediocre cinematic outing, and I truly believe she’ll go on to a prosperous acting career.
Much of the criticism of the film is centered around Ben Platt reprising the role of the title character from the original musical, in that he’s pushing 30 yet playing a high school student. Honestly, I found his portrayal of a student believable, but the problem is that he comes off as a borderline self-parody due to the uneven tone of the movie and how he's written. What faults there are here (and believe me, this movie has a ton) are not Platt’s fault; he’s simply playing the role he was meant to play.
So, where does everything go wrong? The tone of the movie is the biggest problem. Or rather, the seemingly infinite number of tones the movie tries to take on. It simultaneously wants to be a musical, a suicide prevention story, a high school drama, a romantic film, and a look at the dangers of how lies spiral out of control. It doesn’t succeed as any of them. The songs are fine, as are the people singing them. But what’s supposed to be a touching dramatic tale about how a young man’s suicide impacts those around him quickly devolves into a teen comedy that sinks low for cheap laughs, including gay jokes that seem to work against the film’s message. I attended a packed advance screening for this film, and there were numerous scenes in which the audience was laughing hysterically. Should this ever be happening in a movie about a teen suicide? DEAR EVAN HANSEN has no idea what it wants to be.
It doesn’t help that the film’s ridiculously long running time is packed with countless tertiary characters and unnecessary subplots, not to mention poor writing. The title character clearly suffers from social anxiety and any number of other disorders. He’s taking medication and attending therapy. And in one scene of the movie, his mother literally says “I had no idea you were hurting.” Despite being on medication and attending therapy for very obvious issues? Moments like this really make me wonder how much the screenwriters actually took the time to study mental illnesses, disorders, and the like, and how they impact people. Two-and-a-half hours spent with this story and no intermission like the play has is simply too much, and it grows more cringe-worthy with each passing second.
I wanted to like DEAR EVAN HANSEN, but it’s a disaster on nearly every front despite its talented cast. When a movie about teen suicide has several moments that make the audience laugh hysterically, something’s seriously broken. Maybe not every hit play/musical/etc. needs to be adapted for film - Hollywood studios take note! There are a handful of shining lights in the film, namely the performance from Kaitlyn Dever, but they don’t make it worth seeing or experiencing. It’s supposed to be a powerful story about how a teen suicide impacts the people closest to them, yet ironically, it ends up feeling like a parody of the very thing it’s supposed to be.