In 2009, Warner Bros. released Orphan, a horror movie about a young child who worms her way into a normal American household using perverse psychological manipulation before (spoiler alert) being revealed as an adult woman. On Thursday night, the audience at the opening night of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival was lucky enough to be treated to an unofficial Orphan remake. It is called Dear Evan Hansen, and it is nominally the story of a high schooler who tells a white lie that spirals out of control. But based on what’s staring us in the face from the movie’s very first frames, it is hard to read that plot as anything other than a grown man’s elaborate scheme to distract a bunch of teenagers from the fact that he is actually twice as old as they are. And even more chillingly, he gets away with it!
Since the film’s trailer debuted last spring, much has been made of the fact that star Ben Platt — the only cast member to reprise his role from the stage, where Evan Hansen debuted to great acclaim in 2016 — now appears slightly too old to convincingly play a high-school senior. This is like saying that the cats in Cats look slightly more humanoid than my sister’s cat, Jill. It’s true, but it undersells the sense of physical revulsion just a tad. What’s disturbing about Dear Evan Hansen is not just that the 27-year-old Platt is unbelievable as someone ten years younger. It’s that all the film’s efforts to transform him into a plausible teenager have the reverse effect of making the character of Evan Hansen appear to be somewhere in his mid-40s. When he gets up onstage for the second act’s big musical number, I wasn’t sure if he was going to memorialize his dead classmate or speak on the importance of 401(k) matching.
On the matter of Platt’s advanced age, the filmmakers have employed a few key tricks. The first is to absolutely slather his face in pancake makeup, the better to conceal his decrepit 20-something wrinkles. This might have worked had director Stephen Chbosky set most of the film in dark alleyways or shot Platt from very far away. But no. The movie takes place almost exclusively under bright fluorescent lights, and its opening scenes feature the actor’s face in extreme close-ups that show off every inch of his miraculously poreless skin. The effect lands somewhere between the Mystery Man in Lost Highway and Martin Short in Clifford.
To obscure the lines that appear on his forehead whenever Evan Hansen looks concerned, which is always, hair and makeup have given Platt a curly, bang-heavy hairstyle last seen on Howie Mandel in the ’80s*. This was not the only occasion I suspected the film’s craftspeople were enacting a subtle revenge on their leading man. The costume department frequently dresses him in a manner reminiscent of iconic SNL sketches where adults play children, from Jonah Hill’s Benihana 6-year-old to Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher. In flashbacks, Evan sports a boxy blue button-up that, combined with the wig, makes him a dead ringer for Julia Sweeney’s Pat, which only heightens the sense that the entire movie is taking place in Studio 8H.
Physically, Platt has been instructed to mimic a high schooler by slouching a lot. This does not make him look like a teenager; it makes him look like an adult trying very hard to look like a teenager. In the ’90s, films like Cruel Intentions and She’s All That got away with casting actors in their late 20s as teens because they owned it; no one was trying to make viewers believe Paul Walker or Ryan Phillippe was an actual minor. But it also worked because the characters were swaggering alphas. Here, having a grown man play a diffident introvert makes him read not as vulnerable, but as shifty and evasive. Call it the Michael Jackson paradox.
The total failure of Evan Hansen’s de-aging efforts is all the more surprising because the rest of the film is actually not terrible. The songs are catchy, the cast delivers them with appropriate emotion, and Chbosky’s direction has a verve that’s missing from other recent musical adaptations. (He appears to be the only guy left in Hollywood who knows that when characters dance, it helps to show their whole bodies.) But you never get used to the age thing. It’s the best example I can remember of a film being sunk by a solitary bad decision — in the words of my colleague Alison Willmore, “an act of sabotage that’s near avant-garde.”
But hey, Orphan made nearly $80 million worldwide and has a prequel coming later this year. So maybe there’s hope for Dear Evan Hansen yet.
*This article originally claimed that Ben Platt’s Dear Evan Hansen haircut was a wig. It is, astoundingly, his own hair.