After the events of the past year and a half, audiences at the cinema might need a bit of a reprieve. But what happens when a film tries to be uplifting, yet leaves you so nauseated and confused that it feels like a stain on your mind? That was what happened to me after I left the first ever screening of Dear Evan Hansen at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Directed for the screen by Stephen Chbosky, Dear Evan Hansen was a Broadway hit, earning several Tonys in 2017 (that year hosted by Kevin Spacey) and a Grammy. The film’s first trailer made waves on social media for how ridiculous 27-year-old Ben Platt looked while delivering an earnest portrayal of an anxious teen boy with a perm. Platt, the original stage Evan Hansen (his father Marc Platt also produced the film) said this was the last time he would play a high schooler, and after watching the film I would have to say he made a huge mistake doing this for one last time.
If you haven’t Wikipedia’d the very convoluted plot yet, here’s a basic summary: It centers on Evan Hansen, a very shy, depressed and anxious teen going into his senior year of high school with a broken arm. His therapist makes him write letters to himself to get his spirits up (?) and one of the letters gets in the hands of a troubled bully, Connor (Colton Ryan), whose sister (Kaitlyn Dever) Evan has a crush on. Connor ends up dying by suicide, and when his parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) find the letter Evan wrote to himself in their son’s possession, they believe it was his suicide note. And Evan just goes along with it — by faking correspondence between him and a kid who just died. He infiltrates Connor’s family, goes viral for his relationship with the deceased, and encourages a young schoolmate to create a memorial fund. You could be forgiven for assuming that this is a bad faith reading of the film, but sadly no — it is simply what happens.
Evan is a teenager with mental illnesses, so I guess we are supposed to feel for him as his lies snowball. Instead, watching the movie feels like watching a true crime adaptation of a longform article, in which Evan is the villain. It’s supposed to be a story about a sweet kid who gets wrapped up in a lie because he sees how it could help a grieving family and community, but instead it is a tale about a kid who manipulated an entire community so he could date a girl and escape his overworked single mom (played by Julianne Moore, which is extremely jarring).
Perhaps I’d have more sympathy for Evan’s self-made plight if anyone but Platt had played him. He is a terrible choice to portray someone you are supposed to feel bad for. His take on an awkward teen does not translate onto the screen, and is in fact much worse than what was hinted at in the trailer. He’s hunched over and fidgety, his perm makes him look like a Will Farrell character, and the makeup to hide his five o’clock shadow is so thick that he looks like an animated Madame Tussaud’s figure. Anytime he appeared on screen I wondered if the de-aging technology they used for The Irishman was too expensive. His performance is so grating, it’s like if Jar Jar Binks starred in his own film. The film itself is lengthy, at two hours and 17 minutes, and even though I went in knowing it was a musical, I flinched every time I knew a song was coming, prolonging an already torturous experience.
Ultimately, Dear Evan Hansen should have remained on the stage, where theatre people could appreciate whatever the film was trying to do from within the safety of their theatre kid bubble. The rest of us do not deserve to be terrorized.