…Well, okay, you probably could, but it would cost you.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first: Ben Platt, who stars as the titular Evan Hansen, a depressed high school senior who breaks his arm during a botched suicide attempt, cannot play a convincing teenager because he looks like an adult. This shouldn’t bother me so much. Musicals in particular have a tendency to cast people in their late 20s and early 30s as teens. Cory Monteith was 28 when he starred as a 16 year old in Glee and Stockard Channing was 34 when she played Betty Rizzo in Grease. Despite those actors being even older than Platt, who was 27 at the time of filming, they didn’t strain my suspension of disbelief the way he does.
Maybe it’s that Platt is surrounded by actors who look convincing. Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Evan’s love interest Zoe, is 24, but her slight stature and girlish costuming make her a pretty convincing teen. Same for the 22-year-old Amandla Stenberg, who will be 16 in my mind’s eye until they’re 70. Platt’s a special case, clearly—he doesn’t look 27, he looks 40. Putting him in the costume of a high schooler only emphasizes this, giving the audience the strange juxtaposition of a middle-aged man’s head sitting atop a teenager’s torso. His body language works against him too: the shy slouch of a teenage loner turns into the hunch of a grown man whose job requires him to sit behind a desk all day on a chair without sufficient lumbar support. This look is made all the more baffling by his comment to NME that he grew his hair out and lost weight to look like an “authentic” 17-year-old. What’s strangest about all this is that in Ryan Murphy’s (awful) Netflix series The Politician, Platt actually looks the part of a smarmy teen-Pete-Buttigieg type as a conniving wannabe high school class president. If he can pull it off there, why not here?
Well, his acting doesn’t help, since it seems to come from another era. Platt overacts egregiously. He contorts his face with each syllable of every tearjerker showtune, less like a modern actor and more like a silent-era German Expressionist. The things he does with his eyebrows call to mind Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance in The Shining. Part of that is probably the difficulty of translating stage acting to screen—Marylin Stasio wrote that on Hansen’s original Broadway run Platt’s “whole body is wracked with physical and vocal tics,” carefully choreographed to make “his emotional discomfort painfully clear”—but there’s nothing forcing director Steven Chbosky to keep Platt in the role as opposed to a more experienced screen actor. Except for Platt’s ultra-rich father producing the film, that is.
If the incongruity of Platt’s presence was the only problem with Dear Evan Hansen the film could still be salvageable. But it’s not. It’s one of a hundred problems, the biggest of which is that this movie is horribly stagnant. For a musical, there sure isn’t any choreography. Not only is there no dancing, there’s no movement of any kind. The majority of the songs are sung while characters just kind of stand around.
The worst offender is “So Big/So Small,” a climactic number in which Evan’s mother Heidi (Julianne Moore, who inexplicably plays the role with the same manic energy as her turn in Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars) addresses her failed marriage to Evan’s father, who has left them both. Moore sits across from Platt in their family living room and serenades him while the camera mostly just lingers on her face in long takes. This scene goes on for nearly five minutes. The early “For Forever” has similar issues, but at least we get merciful reprieves from Platt standing around and gesticulating in the form of flashbacks to him running through the forest—which gives us one of the film’s few funny moments when Platt belts “all we see is sky” while the camera pans up to show us… trees.
There are plenty of movies—even teen coming-of-age dramas like Never Rarely Sometimes Always—that make this pseudo-slow-cinema approach work. But Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t even seem to be aware that it’s doing it. We don’t get the impression that Chbosky was aiming for raising pathos and drama from these lingering looks and long takes, it just seems like he couldn’t think of a better way to shoot them.
The fact that Dear Evan Hansen is so flat and joyless is made worse by its delightfully batty premise. After Hansen’s suicide attempt, his therapist makes him write letters to himself outlining reasons to live. The local antisocial loner, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) signs Evan’s cast—I admit that I don’t know why he did this because my eyes had already glazed over—but then sees his most recent of these letters in the school printer and, because Evan mentions Connor’s sister Zoe, assumes that it was placed intentionally there to taunt him. He takes the letter, shoves Evan to the ground, and storms off with it. The next day, Evan learns that Connor has killed himself, and the letter (which Evan signed “Sincerely, Me” instead of his own name) is being interpreted as a suicide note addressed to Evan, who Connor’s rich parents (a weirdly-menacing Amy Adams and Danny Pino) assume is Connor’s closest and only friend. Rather than confess the truth, Evan rolls with the lie in order to get close to Zoe.
If this sounds sociopathic, that’s because it is. And it would be perfect if Dear Evan Hansen played that up. The only good sequence in the entire film is the kinetic and hilarious “Sincerely, Me,” an early number in which Evan and his only real friend, Jared (Nik Dodani, a 27-year-old who does actually look like a teen) write more fake letters between Connor and Evan to sell the lie. We learn the contents of these letters from Evan and the late Connor singing their respective back-and-forths while acting out their contents, which leads to a great moment where one of the “Connor” letters is edited in real time to change “smoking drugs” to “smoking crack” to “smoking pot.” Connor has to sing all three, being interrupted each time by Evan and Jared bickering about which to use. The song is genuinely compelling, the only moment Dear Evan Hansen decides to be fun instead of dreary—it’s the only song in the entire film that isn’t a weepy ballad, and the only time anyone dances.
If the rest of the movie stuck with the black comedy tone set by “Sincerely, Me,” it could’ve worked pretty well. Instead it tries to make some grand statement about mental health and fumbles the ball so badly that I have no idea what, exactly, it was going for. But it doesn’t fail in an interesting way—Dear Evan Hansen is too boring to hate. We can’t be stunned by its bad taste or tone-deafness because it tries for the tone of an “It Gets Better” video and nails it, in the sense that it made me roll my eyes and wish for it to be over.
If the message of Dear Evan Hansen is that life is a beautiful thing and shouldn’t be squandered, then it’s right. You can do so much in the 137 agonizing minutes that comprise this mind-numbing film. You can take a nap, read a book, write, sing, bake, masturbate, bird-watch, stare at a wall, watch a better movie—anything! But every moment is precious. Don’t waste any watching this.