A few degrees can make a vast difference. On the thermostat, it may determine what you’ll wear for the day. On the report card, it may cement whether dreams come into focus or disappear into the horizon.
And in the movie “Dear Evan Hansen,” which sees director Stephen Chbosky adapting a Tony Award-winning Broadway play of the same name, a few degrees seems to knock the storytellers’ ethos completely off track. At times, it could be argued this dubiously constructed movie’s purpose is as simple as spotlighting the importance of talking about mental health. Later, as it creeps toward the two-hour mark, flares fly signaling the musical drama is, against all odds and presumptions, trying to craft a deceptive portrait of selfish exploitation.
But “Dear Evan Hansen,” whose awkward perceptions of high school dynamics and Twitter town squares feel out of date with the times and with the movies themselves, constantly refutes its path. It even stumbles out the gate with an inciting incident so depressingly exploitative that all the singsong attempts at rousing our spirits can't distract from or convincingly recontextualize. It’s a confounding work, both because of what it is and because it so clearly provides glimpses of the vastly more interesting though no less harmful story it could be, but makes no real effort to reach for.
Rest assured it’s as strange to watch the plot unfold in the movie as it is to read in the following sentences. “Dear Evan Hansen” refers to how Ben Platt’s protagonist, suffering from an unspecified bout of social anxiety, begins his daily emails. A therapist has recommended it as a strategy of overcoming whatever causes him to break out in a sweat with every glance a schoolmate throws his way, but the cast on his broken arm remains signature-less. Willing your way out of invisibility is easier written out than done, it seems, though fellow school outcast Connor Murphy (26-year-old Colton Ryan, looking at least halfway closer to teenage appearance than Platt) sympathizes enough to write his name during one of the movie’s many interactions which serve to accomplish little but advance the plot.
Tragedy soon strikes when Connor takes his own life, the only thing he left behind appearing to be one of Evan’s self-emails snatched from the library printer. Motivated either by the closure it seems to provide them or by a meaningful emotional connection he’s been deprived of (Dad’s long gone, Mom works late nights), Evan doesn’t make much of an effort to tell Connor’s parents the letter came by his own hand. Digging his heels deeper into his inscrutable position, Evan continues to pen emails as a way of remaining in the good graces and higher-class abode of Connor’s parents and sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), crafting an identity for someone he didn’t know from recollections that are his alone.
One of the scant few times the movie shows any pep in its step is when a skin-crawlingly jaunty tune musicalizing Evan’s correspondences resurrects a fabricated version of Connor to Vaudevillian lengths. The editing is also briefly resurrected, but where technique intrigues, implication falls resoundingly flat; the song has a bitter flavor not because “Dear Evan Hansen” presents it with a tongue in its cheek (it doesn’t), but because the very thought that we’re meant to share in the thrill is soured – thoroughly – by how the story has arrived to this point.
Towering over all the screenplay’s contrivances and increasingly cringe-inducing tours – despite the movie’s best and oddest intentions, but also because of them – is the lack of voice provided to Ryan’s character. Certainly there is attention paid to his absence, but here Connor is a prop, a tool for both the story to meander on and for Evan to continue his scheming. Are we to interpret that lies lead to healing? Deciphering the film's aims quickly and frustratingly becomes our only investment, and it’s an investment born of dismay. Evan’s becomes increasingly, shakily, claustrophobically committed to his deception, to the point that he gets the attention he’s always wanted. Ironic? Sure, and the movie knows it, but only by happenstance. Steven Levenson’s script (he also wrote the play) is never not spinning this as a tale where lessons will be learned. But the more “Dear Evan Hansen” pines for catharsis, the more it feels like catharsis is far and away besides the point. What we’re left doing, then, is looking for a place to give Platt, Chbosky and Co. the benefit of the doubt.
The audience doesn’t have much hope in that endeavor, either. Not when this tale of self-communication is so sorely lacking in self-reflection that it covers complicated subject matter in the broadest of strokes while justifying its transition to the big screen by the thinnest of margins. Ingrained in the very DNA of “Dear Evan Hansen” is the idea of performance, from Evan’s deception to the story’s on-stage origins. And for all the small things and big things those familiar with the Broadway production will notice as missing in the stage-to-screen transition, what’s difficult to deny is that the movie, though unfolding in a very different kind of theater, puts on a show just as glaringly performative about its themes as Evan is about his phony emails.
"Dear Evan Hansen" is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references. It's in theaters now.
Starring: Ben Platt, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
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