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Ben Platt

“DEAR EVAN HANSEN”  My rating: B-

137 minutes | MPAA rating PG-13

“Dear Evan Hansen” is a heartfelt humanist statement about teen suicide.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is an exercise in cynicism.

Which statement is true?  Having just watched the new film based on the Tony-winning Broadway musical, I’d have to say that both are.

Which is a problem.

Ben Platt reprises his stage performance as the title character, a troubled teen whose life is turned upside down by a classmate’s suicide. 

Platt brings to the performance a spectacularly good singing voice (what range! what a way with lyrics!).  He also is called upon to play a character a good decade younger than himself, and while it may have worked in the vastness of a Broadway theater, the cinematic closeup is his enemy.

The film begins with young Evan being pushed by his overworked single mom (Julianne Moore) to stay on his meds (he’s chronically depressed) and make some friends.  The kid is a high school senior but is painfully shy and withdrawn, utterly uncertain about himself.  

He has a kind-of cohort in the tech dweeb Jared (Nik Dodani), who seems to keep Evan around because he’s the one person he can feel superior to.  And Evan has a kinda crush on Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), a couple of years behind him.

A hallway encounter with Zoe’s moody older brother Connor (Colton Ryan) sets the plot in motion. As part of his mental health therapy, Evan is supposed to write encouraging letters to  himself (“Dear Evan Hansen…”) and in an episode of near-bullying, Connor makes off with a printout of one of these self-addressed missives.

Next day it is announced that Connor has killed himself.  His mom (Amy Adams) and stepfather (Danny Pino) have found the Dear Evan note among Connor’s effects and wrongly conclude that Connor had written it to Evan, that in fact the two were best friends.

Rather than tell the hurtful truth that Connor was virtually a total stranger, Evan goes along with the deception, using Jared to create a backlog of phony emails between Evan and Connor chronicling their relationship.

Mom and Dad are relieved that their dead kid had a hidden life in which he wasn’t perennially miserable. Sister Zoe isn’t so sure;  she thinks her older brother was an SOB to the end.

Not only does Evan find himself being adopted by Connor’s family, he becomes the focus of a kickstarter campaign to honor the late student by establishing a park in an orchard that plays a key role in the fictional relationship Evan is promulgating.  Classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) is the driving force; she attempts to assuage her own unhappiness by organizing for various charities and causes.

Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Platt

At some point, of course, this house of cards will collapse.  Evan will emerge older and a bit wiser, but this is definitely NOT a feel-good experience.

Screenwriter Steven Levenson (adapting his book for the stage musical) and director Stephen Chbosky (a specialist in tormented youth, i.e. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Wonder”) have done an effective job of opening up the stage show, delivering rapid-fire montages of teen life and angst (like “Bye Bye Birdie” for pessimists) and employing judiciously selected cutaway shots to flesh out what otherwise would be one guy standing alone and singing.

The handful of musical numbers provided by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek effectively peel away the layers of the characters’ anxieties. But none had a tune that stuck with me, with most falling into a sort of Sondheim-esque esoterica. There is only one dance number, a fantasy celebration of friendship between Evan and the now-dead Connor that is almost jarring in its upbeat chirpiness.

That said, Moore, Adams, Pino, Dever, Stenberg and Ryan all do their own singing and they’re perfectly adequate.  Top vocal honors, though, go to Platt, who really ought to do an album of classic Broadway show tunes. 

In the end “Dear Evan Hansen” finds itself stranded between sympathizing with teen angst and satirizing it.  In particular there are the sardonic observations of Evan’s pal Jared, who looks at his fellow teens with a jaundiced eye that colors the whole experience.  

Perhaps the film will have the same sort of social impact as the stage show, which concluded with info about teen suicide prevention projected on the stage. If so, great.

But as someone well past his teens, I found “Dear Evan Hansen” a deeply ambivalent experience.

| Robert W. Butler

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