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Dear Evan Hansen review – bad timing damages the power of a complex hit

Ben Platt’s age isn’t the only thing that stops a poignant but misguided Broadway adaptation from reaching its potential

When you’re thinking about grief, depression, and alienation – but also any kind of relationship that might help you weather these things – timing is everything. There is no use meeting the right person at the wrong time, or finding the words to make everything feel better long after it’s fallen apart. It is pointless, even harmful, to give the world the perfect story to speak to such horribly complex feelings if you do not have the right tools to do it properly.

Dear Evan Hansen tells a story of awful timing and destabilising loneliness that destroys everything. A brief recap: anxious teenager Evan Hansen is given an assignment by his therapist to write himself a letter every day, something of a pep talk to reassure himself (because nobody else will) that everything will turn out alright. Except it doesn’t, after one of his more distressing letters is intercepted by fellow student Connor Murphy and – in the next and certainly not last disturbing event – mistaken for Connor’s suicide note after he takes his own life. But instead of telling the truth about their non-existent relationship, Evan pretends he and Connor were best friends.

When it premiered on Broadway in 2016, Dear Evan Hansen won the hearts of millions, who saw in its desperately insecure teenage boy someone who finally understood them, in spite of (or maybe thanks to) all the terrible decisions he made. The thing is, when you’re 16-years -old, terrible decisions are just part of everyday life. Evan isn’t likeable or admirable, but he is somewhat relatable and so makes for a pretty fascinating, if infuriating, character to invest in.

That said, the first and most damaging instance of bad timing in the movie adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, directed by The Perks of Being A Wallflower filmmaker Stephen Chbosky, lies with its star, Ben Platt. At the time of writing, Ben Platt is 28-years-old – which wouldn’t be an issue if he wasn’t playing a character who is supposed to be 12 years younger, and who behaves like he is 12-years-old himself. Performance aside, Platt is quite plainly a man, full of pores and stubble and muscle and early wrinkles, trying to pass as a boy. Which would be fine, if the story didn’t hinge so much on the promise that he is young, and stupid, and certain to grow out of this and into himself one day.

Platt has a gorgeous, raw singing voice that travels far and mines deep – and Broadway has known this for years. But in the switch from stage to screen, it becomes too obvious when his range cannot be contained to a box. It’s loud, uncomfortable, excessive. It works with high-octane, deliberately high-camp projects like Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series The Politician, but here is abrasive and intrusive.

Volume and direction become an issue, too, when considering where Platt can and must focus his attention in every performance. Dear Evan Hansen boasts heart-stopping solo numbers that powerfully confront the pain of isolation, which have striking impact when sung out towards a rapturous audience staring back at the singer. But on the screen, in the school hallways, where do you look? Who are these words being spoken to? Platt admirably does his job, but his eyes struggle to find focus, throwing off the meaning that would otherwise just fill the room.

Still, the strange turn of fictional events upon which such a moving story is built does make for a powerful, if manipulative, film. Connor needed help, Evan needs a friend, and Connor’s family need literally anything to hold onto. They’re hurting so deeply after losing the son they felt never let them in, and so they welcome another one into their lives. That’s the perverse power of Dear Evan Hansen: everybody takes what they need from wherever they can get it, after feeling robbed of so much for so long. Wouldn’t you feel like the world owed you something if you fell and nobody caught you?

Yet the weird and often unacceptable ways grief makes you behave also make for the most compelling parts of the film. Things that never made sense are suddenly vital and without question. “People I’ve never met want to be my best friend,” Evan says, surprised at how easily his fate has switched after deciding to in fact maintain the lie he knows will ruin the lives of so many. And this is where we find the uncomfortable appeal of this story: viewers as much as characters cling to what they need to hear when they need to hear it, despite knowing that emotional distance often shows things for what they truly are. Again, timing.

In the six years since Dear Evan Hansen premiered, the world’s relationship with social media has darkened. The show knew this from the start, but the film fails to keep up with the changing times and weighs down some of the potentially powerful and most heartbreaking scenes. Evan goes viral, partly by accident and partly fully, fully manifested and planned, and Chbosky clumsily maps his meteoric rise through a patchwork of social media posts and impassioned strangers on the internet sharing their love and support for this brave young man singing for his very best friend.

Except when things sour, for the Murphys and for Evan, the film fails to take seriously just how violent the internet can be for any person who must take responsibility and reckon with accountability for their actions. Evan needs help, in so many different ways, and yet to show him as capable of simply disengaging after making an apology seems disingenuous, even offensive. It’s a misstep from a filmmaker and team who are not fully engaging with the context of the world they are bringing their film into. True, a lot of it echoes the denial the characters are feeling, so eager to be loved that they are content to ignore whether they are understood. Yet there is still a duty of care towards audiences latching onto such narratives, who must survive in a world that tends to be far crueler than the one we're seeing on screen.

A lot of Dear Evan Hansen is still poignant and personal. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics have earned their status already. Some of the set-pieces are genuinely breathtaking. And Platt does his best, alongside a starry supporting cast that includes Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, and Kaitlyn Dever, all proving that these women’s sensitivities are strong enough to lead an entire army.

But it bothers me how Evan Hansen is so clearly unwell, yet finds his future fixed with such ease. We often talk a big game when it comes to reaching out for help, but what do you do if nobody’s actually there? What are the tangible steps to find support? Why must the timeline arrive at a happy ending with a smiling graduation photo and a beautiful apple orchard after the worst trauma of your life? Adapting this project for the screen required far more judicious plotting and better timing to really do it justice. For a story hellbent on promising so many that they will be found, it’s worth considering that any search is useless if you are simply too late.

Dear Evan Hansen is now showing in UK cinemas.

Where to watch

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