By Elias Savada.
The new movie adaptation, starring a now 27-year-old Platt, has a few problems…. the conversion to the big screen (of this tale concerning social anxiety disorder) brought the play’s A+ grade down to a B-minus.”
Just over six years ago, a high school musical captured my heart and lifted my soul at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Disney was nowhere in sight as a geeky kid sang with the most amazing set of emotional pipes I ever heard. That world premiere engagement of Dear Evan Hansen was all things miraculous, with Steven Levenson’s book, and songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, ushering in a tearful, serious salute to teenage angst, social anxieties, and youth suicide. For many, America’s love affair with Ben Platt was born, and it carried him to the eventual Off-Broadway and then Broadway productions. Dozens of awards followed, including six Tonys.
While the new movie adaptation, starring a now 27-year-old Platt, has a few problems, I can’t say I didn’t like it. Yeah, that’s faint praise, but somehow the conversion to the big screen brought the play’s A+ grade down to a B-minus. Most of the snap, crackle, and pop of those original stage productions does not translate, even if Platt’s only four years removed from when he won the Tony for Lead Actor in a Musical. Yes, Evan‘s had other actors take on his character, but the Hansen/Platt combination was inevitable. And, c’mon, if you get all riled up about him, most of the other high school roles are filed with plenty of 20-somethings. Just like all those “teen” shows on the CW network. Or re-watch Grease with a 29-year-old Olivia Newton-John. Or, should you care that Marc Platt, Ben’s father, produced the film? Nope. Platt Sr. has a stellar bunch of credits, including La La Land (2016), with a soundtrack that also included tunes by Pasek and Paul, as well as some by Justin Hurwitz, that movie’s composer. Sadly, it seems that many critics are just jumping aboard the thumbs-down wagon and driving RottenTomatoes’ Tomatometer into mind-boggling low double-digit numbers.
The film’s director, Stephen Chbosky, tackled introverted adolescent issues with The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), which he also adapted from his own bestselling novel. Four years ago he helmed Wonder, about another kid (one suffering from Treacher Collins syndrome) who has problems fitting in at middle school. So, coming-of-age scenarios are nothing new to him. He also wrote the scripts for the film versions of Rent (2005) and the 2017 live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps the film’s issues fall in the lap of Levenson, as this is his first feature-length credit (after working on the Fosse/Verdon mini-series two years ago). Maybe a set of fresh eyes would have helped push the film into a different realm, beyond the numerous changes afoot for folks expected a closer impression of the stage play. Some characters got shuffled, four songs got cut. Some tunes are new, such as Anonymous Ones and A Little Closer (covered by SZA and Finneas, respectively). Yet, everything maintains the same tone and story line. The film still is too long, at 2¼ hours.
If viewers are going to criticize the casting of Platt, I’m surprised they’re not claiming stunt casting with the presence of Julianna Moore (as the single parent of Evan) and Amy Adams and Danny Pino (as the mourning mother and stepfather of a young suicide). They craft somber, emotionally driven performances, especially the women. Their musical range isn’t extraordinary, but it is real.
Geez, I’ve gotten this far and haven’t told you what it’s about, in case you’re unaware. Evan has Social Anxiety Disorder. Loner Connor Murphy (an excellent Colton Ryan) is the student who takes his life early in the film. The situation becomes awkward for Evan when a note is misconstrued to make it appear the boys were friends. Evan’s overprotective mother doesn’t realize that the Murphy’s, an upper middle-class couple, have taken a liking to Evan, who finds himself stumbling further into the rabbit hole of escalating deception. Even Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) takes a more than passing interest into their new dinner guest. Evan’s only friend is level-headed Jared (Nik Dodani), who becomes part of the ruse, agreeing to write fake, pre-dated emails between Connor and Evan. Fellow student Alana (The Hate U Give‘s Amanda Stenberg, radiant and co-composing one of the new songs) has her own esteem issues in helping to sponsor an online fundraising effort to restore a derelict apple orchard that Connor apparently visited as a child. The film further explores the celebrity of the internet, when a tongue-tied-turned-sympathetic speech given at a memorial for Connor finds Evan’s recognition among other students of Westview High soaring. Like a merry-go-round, the emotions move down-up-down-up as the film moves into its third act, which offers a brighter resolution than the play offered.
So, if you put the Platt ruckus behind you, look ahead to enjoying the movie. Forget that replacing the theatrical experience with a cinematic one can be a difficult transition. If you want to see one of the best, go watch In the Heights, and I suspect Steven Spielberg’s look at West Side Story will be year-end pleaser. For now, there’s plenty of heart and soul in Dear Evan Hansen.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).