Every year there has to be a movie that everyone wants to dunk on. When the trailers for Dear Evan Hansen came out, it made a clear bid to be 2021’s punching bag. But to be fair to Twitter bullies everywhere, Dear Evan Hansen really didn’t need to make it so easy. Ben Platt immediately came under fire for being way too old for the lead role, and the film’s overly earnest, preachy tone was always going to turn off some more cynical viewers. Eye-rollingly saccharine and embarrassingly out of touch in terms of its efforts at mental health awareness, Ben Platt’s somewhat advanced age is the least of the film’s problems.
Evan Hansen is a perpetually anxious teenage boy, who has never quite mastered the art of speaking to other humans. He pines for Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever) from afar, but probably couldn’t work up the nerve to ask to borrow a pencil, let alone confess his feelings. On the first day of his senior year, he writes an emotionally vulnerable letter to himself as part of an exercise given to him by his therapist, which causes complications when it is seen by Connor. Immediately furious that the letter references his little sister, he storms off with it, leaving Evan to worry that he’s going to post it all over the internet.He does something worse: he kills himself that night. When Connor’s parents find the letter, they assume that there was a close friendship between Evan and their son. Desperate for some sort of closure, they invite Evan into their home in an attempt to gain insight into the mercurial, enigmatic Connor. But here’s where things start to get wild: Evan not only confirms that they had a special bond (they didn’t), but he concocts false memories of their friendship to comfort them and even writes a series of emails written between himself and Connor that show how close they were. Evan, buddy? This is truly unhinged behavior.
Yes, Ben Platt is far too old for this role. He looks out of step with every other actor playing a high school student on screen, and as much as you can understand him wanting one more chance to play the role that launched his career, it’s hard to avoid feeling that this wouldn’t even be a conversation if his father wasn’t a producer on the film. That said, after the first five or ten minutes, you start to get used to it, whatever issues you might have with his performance, at the very least he isn’t distracting. But the real problem is the ripple effect that his age creates. Part of our ability to empathize with this character making objectively reprehensible choices is his youth — if we can forgive him at all, it’s because we recognize that he’s very young and inexperienced. But it’s hard to get to that place of forgiveness when he comes across like a grown man.
Still, though, Ben Platt is far from the only reason Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t work. This thing was written first for the stage in the early 2010s, and we have come so far in mental health awareness for teenagers that the efforts of Dear Evan Hansen to send a message to struggling teens everywhere fall flat: it feels like the product of a very different time. The way that Connor’s memorial interacts with social media is cringeworthy, often feeling like nothing more than a treacly, pseudo-inspirational public service announcement, ultimately ringing hollow. Evan finds some people who knew Connor in rehab because Connor liked the Facebook page of his treatment facility, because that’s something a teenager in crisis would do. When Evan gives a speech about his friendship with Connor, it’s shown in a montage of YouTube videos and TikToks of influencers telling their followers how heartwarming and special it is. It’s apparent that the speech itself doesn’t do enough to stand out, so it needs to be bolstered by overwhelmingly over-the-top platitudes from the entirety of social media. It’s all so corny.
But worst of all: Dear Evan Hansen just isn’t that good of a musical. The songs are extraordinarily one-note, filled with pain and grief but there’s no balance. When you write a musical that has almost nothing but downbeat ballads, it gets monotonous very quickly. There’s one moment early on in the film, a song that Connor sings as Evan puts words into his mouth while he’s workshopping the emails they’ve supposedly written to one another, that is actually really engaging. It’s legitimately funny, and Colton Ryan steals the show as Connor cycles through song lyrics as Evan repeatedly rewrites the emails. There’s a lightness to it that serves as a respite from the darkness of the rest of the story. It would have been so nice to see more of that, rather than the endless string of sad, weepy songs that fill Dear Evan Hansen: there’s only so long you can listen to Ben Platt’s anguished falsetto before you start to tune it out.
It has some good points. Kaitlyn Dever is an incredibly pleasant surprise, bringing a lovely singing voice to the production that she hasn’t had an opportunity to showcase in roles before this. Colton Ryan makes a huge impact, considering how little screen time he has. And all of the parents in this film (Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, and Danny Pino) are good in their own ways, each bringing very different energies to their roles. Really, it’s hard to fault any of the individual actors: they’re not doing anything wrong. They’re just stuck in a tediously melodramatic movie musical that is frustratingly dated in its approach to mental health awareness, somehow thinking that annoyingly on-the-nose songs about anxiety and depression will be a game-changer. (They’re not.)