Warning: The flawed but stirring film version of the Broadway smash “Dear Evan Hansen” is not the crime against humanity its worst critics claim. It simply dares to step out with sincerity into the age of snark. That’s the real reason it keeps getting burned.
Ben Platt, reprising his Tony-winning role as Evan Hansen, is taking the most heat. At 27, he’s been deemed too old to play a high school senior. Forget that John Travolta was about the same age when he matriculated in “Grease.” Ditto James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” and Tobey Maguire in “Spider-Man.”
This whole thing about performers having to “be” who they’re playing has now reached the point of absurdity. What’s next, only serial killers playing serial killers? But push past the cruelty heaped on Platt and the uneven direction of Stephen Chbosky and you’ll discover that the Steven Levenson script has moments of humor, delicacy and feeling.
Evan is a misfit whose classmate Jared (a fine, funny Nik Dodani, also 27) claims that they’re related but not friends. Ouch. Raised by a divorced mom (Julianne Moore), Evan is on meds prescribed by a doc who assigns him to write encouraging notes to himself.
One note, addressed to Dear Evan Hansen, is stolen by hostile stoner Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan, 26). Later, when Connor takes his own life, his parents—Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino)—find the note and mistake Evan for Connor’s only friend.
Evan tries to stammer out the truth to the parents and Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who he’s crushing on, but mom’s need to believe leads Evan to agree. His big lie suddenly makes Evan a viral hero and blooms into a social media movement that comforts the lonely and suicidal with Evan’s song, ”You Will Be Found.”
That showstopper might be off-putting to musical haters who regard Broadway as a relic of the past century (sorry, “Hamilton”) and ask why the movie didn’t cut the damn songs and just tell the story.
Because then it wouldn’t be “Dear Evan Hansen,” with its glorious, Grammy winning pop score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that allows the shy, reclusive Evan to break through with his feelings. Even when Platt’s acting wobbles, his voice is sublime.
Most of the vocals were recorded live on set, providing a closeness you don’t get from belted stage performances with flashy finishes. Only the opener, “Waving Through a Window,” goes big to show Evan lost and enveloped by his school’s bustling chaos.
In tender moments, Platt, singing the poignant “For Forever” about the friendship with Connor he wished he had and his duet with the luminous Dever (she’s 24, by the way) on “Only Us,” the film achieves a rare intimacy, also reflected in Moore’s wrenching and beautiful take on “So Big, So Small,” about how a home can shrink after divorce.
Among the new numbers, “A Little Closer” allows Connor to finally sing for himself and “The Anonymous Ones,” sung and co-written by a standout Amandla Stenberg (“The Hate U Give”), catches up activist student Alana in Evan’s crusade and his deception.
It’s a shame that the movie, like Evan, allows itself to appropriate mental illness for its own ends, which can be selfish and sentimental. But on screen, the show’s ending is tempered with a meditative note of uncertainty about what happens when the dark comes crashing through. You will be found? Not always. Look at Connor. Consider Evan.
Cliches won’t cut it in a pandemic when crippling social anxiety is on the rise, especially among the young. Finding glimmers of hope is this movie’s mission. Manipulative? Maybe. But also a gift. As is Platt, who age be damned inhabits the role with every fiber of his being. At its best, “Dear Evan Hansen” hits you like a shot in the heart.