'Dear Evan Hansen', You're the Charlie-Browniest, You Blockhead

A boy and girl laugh at an amusement park
Ben Platt as EVAN, Kaitlyn Dever as ZOE in DEAR EVAN HANSEN

About a year after Hamilton took the theater world by storm, another stage musical came out called Dear Evan Hansen. While it came nowhere near to earning the hype of Lin-Manuel Miranda's cultural juggernaut, Dear Evan Hansen definitely received love from the theater crowd, winning numerous awards and accolades. Never seeing the theatrical production and just hearing others' takes, I always pictured Dear Evan Hansen as a Charlie Brown-esque story for contemporary times. Photos of Ben Platt sporting his polo shirt and khakis even visually supported my thesis. I knew the story dealt with suicide, social anxiety, and feeling like an outsider. And the literary device of a student hashing out his emotions through letters even seems on brand. Doesn't that sound familiar, Charlie Brown?

But while Hamilton's transition from stage to screen earned adulation, Dear Evan Hansen has been panned by critics and audiences alike. How did it all go so wrong?

Two teen boys look at a laptop together
Ben Platt as EVAN, Nik Dodani as JARED in DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Dear Evan Hansen stars Ben Platt as the titular main character. Ben suffers from severe anxiety and depression. His therapist suggests he write affirming letters to himself as a way of working out his feelings. Ben feels rather invisible. His one source of unconditional love is his hard working single mother, Heidi (Julianne Moore), whose work schedule keeps her away from home most of the time. One of Evan Hansen's letters falls into the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan; Uncle Frank), an unhappy boy who has problems of his own. After Connor takes his own life, Evan gets swept into a succession of lies when Connor's parents (played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino) think Connor wrote Evan's letter as a goodbye note to Evan. Evan, who feels starved for attention and wants more than anything to belong somewhere, allows himself to get swept into the masquerade of being the parents' only lifeline to their now-dead son. He wants to tell them the truth, but the parents seem to want -- to need-- to know that Connor had a friend. But as the lies pile up and Evan begins to benefit from his deception in ways he never imagined, telling the truth becomes the last thing Evan wants to do. The movie is directed by Steven Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), adapted for the screen by Steven Levenson, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

So how does it play on screen? The best part, hands down, is the music itself. Ben Platt can sing, as can the rest of the cast, who presumably all do their own vocals. Especially after watching the drab repetitive musical numbers in Annette (the last musical I watched), listening to well-crafted musical numbers with melodic cadence and lyrics that tell a story felt like a breath of fresh air. Most of the numbers are heart wrenching and occasionally sappy. The one exception is the humorous "Sincerely, Me," during which Evan and his tech-savvy friend Jared Kalwani (Nik Dodani) compose fake emails that Connor wrote to his supposed pal, Evan. This gives Colton Ryan as Connor an opportunity to join in the fun of acting out an imaginary friendship with Evan postmortem, adding a much-needed dose of levity to the proceedings. Julianne Moore's delivery of "So Big/So Small" and Amandla Stenberg's in "The Anonymous Ones" were also favorites that evoked tears. Musicals are by and large an emotionally-driven medium so it's no surprise that tears fell as I sat through these numbers.

A boy and his mother set together on couch
Ben Platt as EVAN, Julianne Moore as HEIDI in DEAR EVAN HANSEN

Unfortunately, just having good songs isn't enough to make this movie musical memorable. The biggest issue remains the casting of Ben Platt. His Broadway acting gained critical acclaim, but what plays well on stage does not translate into the intimacy of the screen. I found myself unable to connect with him emotionally, even during his most gut wrenching songs. His age and bad haircut notwithstanding, when he is so close to the camera his performance just doesn't feel authentic. He acts like a person who is pretending to be awkward and anxious instead of really feeling those things. I believed the performances of Stenberg, Kaitlyn Dever, Adams, Moore, and even Ryan. I did not believe Platt. While everyone agrees that he looks too old, those that defend him argue that Platt knows the character and that no one could replace him. By that logic, Shia LeBeouf should have played himself in Honey Boy instead of channeling his efforts into giving Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges everything they needed to emulate him. Should Shia have played himself since no one else can do it better? Platt could have trained a surrogate, perhaps even one with actual diagnosed medical anxiety, to be the new Evan. The success of the show should matter more than one person's need to own their part.

A teen girl sits on a swing at night
Amandla Stenberg as ALANA in DEAR EVAN HANSEN
And then there's the story itself.Dear Evan Hansen became a critical darling for the theater crowd, but the cushion of wealth it takes to afford such luxuries guarantees that the largest percentage of theater attendees will be wealthy, white, middle-aged, and comfortable being in large crowds. It's not exactly the type of situation that attracts teens with depression, social anxiety, or any number of issues this play wants to bring to the forefront. Rather, it's someone's attempt to manufacture what they think it's like for teens. The point which clarified this most comes when Evan sings "You Will Be Found," in front of the school. The trope of the loser coming in front of the school and performing their socks off, gaining respect from the cool kids, usually makes me smile. Think of Napoleon Dynamite showing off his Michael Jackson moves in that movie. Sure, it's a little unrealistic, but it's a moment where the character gets to hold their head high and show they have something to offer. The dopamine the character (and us) feels is its own reward. But in Evan's case, as he sings about never being alone, students record the song, which sprouts a litany of social media posts from admiring viewers. Evan goes viral as everyone shares, tagging on lazy "You gotta see this!" retweets. This moment, which is supposed to feel like a good thing, made the contents of my stomach curdle, highlighting the artificial and temporary nature of social media fame.

This scene really serves as a microcosm to the emotional lack at the heart of Dear Evan Hansen. The issues at stake are worth handling on screen and many have succeeded in going there. Dear Evan Hansen was brought to film to be a showpiece for Ben Platt and try to repeat the success of Hamilton being adapted for the small screen. It should have stayed on the stage where it belongs. Translating it to the screen just highlighted that this is a show and far from a story that has the power to heal or inspire actual change. See it for the musical performances; don't expect something that comes close to exploring the pain of the human condition.

Release info: In theaters September 24, 2021

Final score: 2.5 out of 5