After its opening-night premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, Dear Evan Hansen became an immediate sensation — albeit not the kind the film’s studio distributor Universal had been hoping for. Director Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of the Tony-winning musical played well inside Roy Thomson Hall, where star Ben Platt was greeted with a standing ovation for reprising the titular Broadway role that won him a Grammy, Tony, Obie, and Drama League Distinguished Performance Award. But scathing appraisals of Dear Evan Hansen started to appear online even before the lights came back on inside the auditorium.
Like the stage play before it, the coming-of-age movie musical follows Evan, a high-school senior suffering from crippling social anxiety who (on a therapist’s orders) writes a letter to himself cataloguing his feelings of inadequacy and how he believes things would be better if he just “disappeared.” His aggressive, loner-outcast classmate Connor takes the letter. But when Connor dies by suicide, Evan’s cri de coeur is mistaken as intimate correspondence between the two. From there, the awkward teen gets swept up in an escalating series of lies that puts him at the center of the tragedy, and eventually turns him into a viral sensation.
In the days following Dear Evan Hansen’s premiere, reviewers continued to lay into the PG-13 title with critical brickbats, citing, among other things, that Platt, 27, is too old to inhabit the lead part onscreen. (This complaint first surfaced online in May, when the trailer debuted.) The Atlantic’s David Sims called the movie an “unmitigated disaster” and the casting of Platt a “deadly mistake.” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson described Platt as “quite visibly in his late 20s,” rendering his character “an interloper oddity from some other-world.” “What’s disturbing about Dear Evan Hansen is not just that the 27-year-old Platt is unbelievable as someone ten years younger,” Vulture’s Nate Jones wrote. “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.”
Steven Levenson wrote the book for the stage-musical version of Dear Evan Hansen, also serving as the film’s screenwriter and executive producer. He says he’s a believer in the “value of criticism” and points out the show has “always been something that makes people talk.” He even invoked Lin-Manuel Miranda, who tweeted “All the criticisms are valid” after #CancelHamilton began trending on Twitter last summer. Ahead of the film’s wide release, the producer says he is focused less on whether audiences will find the character of Evan likable and more on whether his film will become, as the musical did, a catalyst for discussion — of “consequences and responsibility, punishment and rehabilitation.” But he has taken issue with what he characterizes as the personal nature of certain commentary.
“I am struck by the vitriol for Ben. Especially the cruelty,” Levenson tells Vulture. “It’s totally fine if you don’t like the movie. Or you think we shouldn’t have cast Ben in it. But in social media — this is something the movie explores — it’s easier to forget that there are human beings on the other side of those tweets. And whatever you think about someone’s performance or their age-appropriateness, they’re still a person. The cruelty, I think, is discouraging.”
Of course, Dear Evan Hansen is hardly the first film to feature a full-fledged adult as a wide-eyed high schooler: Tobey Maguire was 27 when he portrayed 17-year-old Peter Parker in 2002’s Spider-Man; Shirley Henderson was 37 when she turned up as the giggly ghost of a 14-year-old girl named Myrtle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; and Alan Ruck dialed in his performance as a goofy, gangly 17-year-old in the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at the ripe old age of 29. Unlike these movies — a superhero adaptation, a fantasy-franchise installment, and a teen comedy that never exactly attempts to convince you its main characters are actual teens — Dear Evan Hansen, as critics have strained to point out, is a realistic drama that revolves tightly around the portrayal of a vulnerable, introverted young character.
At a private screening and panel interview for the movie in New York on September 14, moderator Katie Couric asked Platt — who originated the role of Evan Hansen in 2017, winding up on Time’s list of the 100 Most Influential People that year — what he made of people “shitting all over you and the character.” In what amounts to his most extensive comments on the situation to date, the actor expressed love for his character and pride in the movie and musical for affecting change in people’s lives. But he declined to engage in any kind of defense of the motion-picture adaptation or his casting. “Everyone is looking for something to hate on right now,” Platt said. “Everyone is bored and upset and outraged and tired and frustrated and I understand. We’re going through a horrible time, so I get it. But I think people that want to love it and find beauty in it are going to. And people that want to hate it are going to hate it. And everybody hates musicals too.”
Indeed, the people who want to love it — fans of the musical, and fans of musicals — could likely find their way into theater auditoriums no matter the early critical verdicts. In 2018, the Hugh Jackman movie musical The Greatest Showman opened to a raft of craptacular reviews and took in a lackluster $8.8 million over its debut. But the film scored well with audiences, boasted a popular soundtrack, and hung on in theaters for months, eventually taking in a strong $435 million to become a slow-burn hit. Especially given Dear Evan Hansen’s preexisting cultural footprint — having a juggernaut run as a stage production in Washington, D.C., Toronto, London, and New York prior to reaching the screen, in addition to a cast album recording that hit No. 8 on the Billboard 200 in 2017 — a similar outcome would hardly raise eyebrows.
Asked what kind of marketing challenges such negative critical reception presents during a release corridor that clearly positions the movie for awards-season contention, Universal’s chief marketing officer Michael Moses voiced faith that Dear Evan Hansen’s music (by Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), performances, and overall “sincerity” would help popularize the movie in much the same way those factors combined to do so during Evan Hansen’s Broadway run. He also pledged fealty to the filmmakers’ vision: “We know how this film plays to an audience undeterred by a noisy minority, and we proudly continue to support it and its creators and actors.”
As well, Moses dismissed the potential impact a small number of early-responder social-media naysayers voicing opinions out of the Toronto festival will have on the film’s bottom line. “From politics to the Oscars to the box office, we’ve seen what Twitter decides to either anoint or abolish doesn’t always align with the real world,” Moses says in an email to Vulture. “We really only have a partial sense of the critical reception so far, not the audience’s. If you ever saw the show, you know how powerfully it speaks to many.”
To be sure, critics have panned other aspects of the movie: a shaky transition from two acts to three, an overly melodramatic musical tone, problematic source material that doesn’t fare better in adaptation. (Vulture’s Helen Shaw disagrees with the latter point, writing, “When the movie Dear Evan Hansen adds dimension to the stage version, it does so by working against the original’s platitudes and giving more weight to its inherent brutality.”) I ask the producer if he feels American culture has shifted since Dear Evan Hansen first came out onstage, introducing audiences to a teenager who counterfeits emails in order to perpetuate a tragic misunderstanding. “I looked at musicals. This is not a particularly new concept of a character doing terrible things or a character lying. That is the premise of The Music Man, basically,” Levenson says. “But I also think that the idea of lying, especially lying online, has taken on a new valence because of Trump and fake news that is part of the culture now in a way that it wasn’t at the time. So a character that lies and tells this falsehood I think feels Trumpian in a way that it was certainly never intended to be.”
Impossible to ignore: In both the movie and in real life, Evan Hansen becomes a social-media sensation who brings people together with a narrative of uplift, then experiences a dramatic fall from grace measured by hundreds of thousands of invective-filled repostings and downward-pointing thumbs. “The irony has not been lost on me and feels weird,” Levenson says.