movie review

Dear Evan Hansen Walks Through the Uncanny Valley, Ascends Anyway

When the movie Dear Evan Hansen works, it’s working against the original musical’s platitudes and giving weight to its inherent brutality. Photo: Erika Doss/Universal Pictures

If you have heard one thing about the movie musical Dear Evan Hansen, it’s probably that the star is too old. “Old” in this case means “in his late 20s,” and despite a long history of creaky elderpersons playing teens onscreen (cf. Bye Bye Birdie and Riverdale), for many, the casting of a heavily made-up, 27-year-old Ben Platt has been one uncanny valley too far. Our Vulture coverage from the Toronto International Film Festival asked the hard question — “How Old Does Ben Platt Look in Dear Evan Hansen?” — and the answer was: so old. I can verify. Comparisons to Pat from SNL’s “It’s Pat!” and the child impersonator in Orphan are not wrong. I might add that Platt’s Evan Hansen looks like Fred Armisen in any sketch in which Fred Armisen is trying to seem extra naïve and creepy.

And, sorry, but I’m sort of into it? The stage project was built around and for Platt’s ethereal voice, which is one part pop-Broadway, one part Vienna Boys Choir. Yet the actual content of the musical is distressing, messy, full of psychological manipulation and passive aggression. It’s therefore kind of … useful that we have to struggle to reconcile Platt’s angelic sound to his waxwork face. 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. The musical’s sometimes-smeary qualities are burned off by the sheer weirdness of Platt’s attempts to “act” away a decade of human aging, which are exaggerated, sometimes to the point of comedy. His obvious “wrongness” makes mindless sympathy with the character a challenge; it turns any compassion you do muster for him into a (productively) difficult act.

Because dear little Evan has certainly done something awful. In Steven Levenson’s script (and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs), the socially anxious Evan — through a maze of coincidences and accidents — winds up pretending to have a friendship with fellow student Connor (Colton Ryan), who has died by suicide. The letter that starts “Dear Evan Hansen” is actually written by Evan himself as a therapy exercise. The troubled Connor finds the letter on a school printer, then has it with him at his death, at which point it’s mistaken for a letter between true confidants.

Levenson is a fancy plotter, and a quick one, so he rapidly snares Evan into promising more and more to Connor’s grieving family, including his mother Cynthia (Amy Adams) and crushable sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). Can Evan produce more evidence of his nonexistent friendship with Connor? If he teams up with computer wiz Jared (Nik Dodani), he can. Once Evan speaks at a school assembly about what Connor “taught” him, singing the exquisite “You Will Be Found,” he goes viral, gets popular, gets the girl:

Even when the dark comes crashing through

When you need a friend to carry you

And when you’re broken on the ground

You will be found.

Wham! The cynicism guillotines through you, top to toe. In his song, Evan is rewriting an episode from his own life, when he fell from a tree and no one helped him. But this is how the world is: You won’t actually be found, but people will profit from lying about that when you die. Key change!

Monstrous behavior happens in musicals (extrajudicial killing in Oklahoma!, spousal abuse in Carousel), but music has the power to cue our emotions any which way — the melody swells and our sentiments follow. In Dear Evan Hansen, Evan’s behavior verges on sociopathy, yet songwriters Pasek and Paul give him such heartrending arias, expressing such a depth of feeling, that the theatrical audience empathizes with Evan’s hurt and not the hurt he’s caused. And he has so much pain to plumb! Evan’s introductory song “Waving Through a Window” is an anthem for all people anywhere who feel alienated from the bustling world. “Step out, step out of the sun / If you keep getting burned,” he sings, already, at 17, too hurt by life to live it. Director Stephen Chbosky stages the song beautifully, taking it from Evan’s room to the school, where the inevitable key change hits just as he bursts through a set of cafeteria doors. That magnetic, musical pull toward Evan is at work in Chbosky’s movie version. But now the pull is coupled with a powerful pushin other words, repulsion — that keeps us from being seduced.

Not that the movie isn’t trying to seduce us. The movie’s textures are fine and rich: Cinematographer Brandon Trost lingers on the dappled eggshell surfaces of Connor’s family house, so different from the house where Evan and his harried single mother — played by Julianne Moore — are scraping by. Even at Evan’s, though, the colors are luscious, deeply shadowed greens and blues. He loves the woods, and Connor loved an orchard, and you can see a wood’s bosky tones filtering through their houses. Chbosky’s sound department does an impressive job of making the songs fit into these spaces, so when Dever’s Zoe sings to Evan, she seems to be doing it in a real kid’s room, rather than a dubbing studio. Dever also does an excellent job of showing us how hostile and bewildered and ugly a grieving person can be. Amy Adams, on the other hand, suffers beatifically.

Levenson and the rest have cut some songs, reordered others, and rejiggered the ending. (The movie version of the story now makes sure that Evan atones, though it still features a little too much teary nodding for my taste.) Most of the songs for adults are gone, though Julianne Moore still sings a song of forgiveness to her son —“So Big / So Small” — at the heart of the movie. Her face, obviously not made up to look younger than it is, shines like a lighthouse, and her voice, with its sweetly ragged, unconfident edge, becomes the most important thing in the film. There’s a new song for Connor and one for a fragile classmate played by Amandla Stenberg, who is also using Connor’s death for her own purposes. You will certainly not trust a high-school student as far as you can throw one after this movie, but you will also come away with the impression that they are all teetering on the edge — by my count, four of the five kids we meet are on the brink of self-harm.

The movie’s version of adolescence is clearly just a bath of pain, and Dear Evan Hansen (like Chbosky’s own book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) sinks us into that anguish so deeply it turns into a weird, vicarious pain-pleasure. There’s something to think about there: the dominance of artworks made by adults that amplify extreme teenage sorrow. Are we hungry for an emotional scale we can no longer reach? Did any of us actually get over our adolescence? And that’s why I’m grateful for the un-teen, undead face of Ben Platt. As much as Dear Evan Hansen speaks to the youngs and makes the olds cry, it’s worth remembering that there’s some emotional vampirism going on here. It’s fine, fine, to make art that does this! We do draw sustenance from one another’s blood. It’s just nice to be honest about the gruesomeness of it — a reminder of the yuck, which does not obviate the yum.

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Dear Evan Hansen Walks Through the Uncanny Valley