If there is one subgenre that audiences are seeing more of nowadays, it’s evident that it’s Broadway musicals or plays turning into feature films. In the past 18 months, Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “In the Heights” and now Steven Levenson’s “Dear Evan Hansen” Broadway scripts have all been taken to the big screen.
The film adaptation tells the story of how Evan Hansen (Ben Platt), a wallflower high school student, who copes with anxiety and depression, has a hard time making friends. When his therapist assigns him to write a letter to himself, the school bully Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) sees the letter and takes it from Evan. As Evan goes throughout his day, he is called into the principal’s office to find out by Connor’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) that Connor has taken his life, and the last thing they found of Connor was the note he took from Evan. Evan panics and tells the parents that the two were best friends, lying to the grieving parents in an effort to make them feel better.
“Dear Evan Hansen,” the Broadway musical, has always been a mixed bag for me. While I did like it the first time I saw it, I blame it on the fact that I was a “tween” at the time. Since then, I’ve had time to think about the play’s story structure and character motivations. It’s a mystery that teens look up to Evan as a hero even though he has caused so much harm to those around him. Sure it has its emotional moments but it does not feel earned. But even worse, “Dear Evan Hansen,” the feature film adaptation, is even more problematic than its source material.
First off, I think we should bring up the very large elephant in the room; Ben Platt. The Broadway star was the lead in the musical production, which only made it feel fitting for him to star in the film. Additionally, Platt’s father Marc E. Platt was a producer on the film. Yet, seeing him talk to much younger co-stars and dressing like a “normal teenager” feels very off-putting and at times terrifying since he is actually 28 years old.
Continually, when Platt plays a caricature of someone suffering from anxiety and depression, it feels so misguided in its themes of mental health. From the laughable “shaky hands” to the awfully portrayed “anxiety attack” sequences, it seems like nothing new is being presented from Platt’s performance that was seen in the Broadway show. The script, just like its source material, is very poorly done and at times feels offensive for those actually suffering from mental health issues. We are supposed to empathize with Evan, but yet, all I feel is a pity that he did not get a greater punishment for lying to everyone around him and manipulating an entire town.
The entire storyline also feels rushed. We never really gain any dimension towards Connor’s character outside of “he screams a lot, and that’s why he is crazy.” Furthermore, the deranged romance subplot between Evan and Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), makes the movie seem like a poorly done high school drama. The musical moments are poorly timed, terribly edited and at times laughably executed. Platt singing his heart out during a very heated conversation in the film’s last act makes it feel very out of place, acting almost like a distraction from what is going on. Lastly, the editing feels so fast that it’s to the point where audiences cannot make out the full image. Obviously, the film adaptation must make some changes to the original script, but it only leaves the audience culminating to a conclusion that leaves more questions than answers.
“Dear Evan Hansen” feels like a misguided, poorly presented and offensive portrayal of mental health, while also providing audiences a reminder that the original stage production does not need the praise it has received. Ben Platt feels miscast and awkward as the film’s leading high school protagonist. The script is simply a mess, from its writing, to its character depth development, to its themes. I am not shocked that this film comes from the same filmmaker behind “Wonder” (2017) and “Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012). “Dear Evan Hansen” is a film meant for this new generation of internet kids, but it ends up sounding like it was written by a 40-year-old man who does not know this generation outside of popular buzzwords.