Despite its Broadway credentials, "Dear Evan Hansen" hits screens faced with an inherent tension: Can its songs and cast, led by Ben Platt reprising his Tony-winning role, overcome the uncomfortable premise and problematic protagonist? The answer is not completely, despite tweaks seemingly made specifically to try softening those edges.
Although one might think an acclaimed musical wouldn't warrant such concerns, the nature of the story -- about a misunderstanding that becomes a lie, at first kind in its intentions but increasingly cruel as it drags on -- won't be for everyone. And while there are a few beautiful songs from the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul ("La La Land" and "The Greatest Showman"), at points that feels like modest compensation for watching this slow-motion train wreck unfold.
At its core, the story does say profound things about the nature of grief and mental health, and perhaps most pointedly how people frequently respond to tragedy in ways that make the aftermath all about them. In this case, that tendency transforms an alienated high-school kid no one paid any attention into a cause and crusade after his death.
Still, what spoke to people in the theater is diffused through the medium of film. Even with efforts to address some of those issues -- tinkering with the ending, adding new songs to enhance certain characters and excising old ones -- the focus remains squarely on Platt's Evan, who fills in gaps in his troubled life at the expense of everyone around him.
"I wish that anything I said mattered to anyone," Evan grumbles in his halting manner early on, writing letters addressed to himself as an exercise suggested by his therapist, which doesn't help in any appreciable way.
But then one of those letters is snatched away by Connor (Colton Ryan), who also signs the cast on Evan's arm. When Connor takes his own life, his parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) assume that the "Dear Evan Hansen" note they found reveals a friendship about which they didn't know.
Evan goes along, then begins building on the lie. In what feels a bit like "The Music Man," the deception -- and self-deception -- works for a while, helping those grieving while transforming Evan from a friendless outcast into an object of sympathy at first, and eventually lifting his status. Even the seemingly perfect girl (Amandla Stenberg) admits her own self-doubts, while Evan now has an excuse to spend time with Connor's sister Zoe ("Unbelievable's" Kaitlyn Dever, maybe the best thing in the film), someone to whom he could never muster the courage to speak before.
Yet Evan's remastered life is built on a house of cards. Director Stephen Chbosky ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower"), working from playwright Steven Levenson's script, wrings as much angst as he can out of that scenario, but at a certain point the plot feels as if it's spinning its wheels.
In a year heavy on musicals, the movie also lacks many show-stopping numbers, with the exception being Platt's rendition of "You Will Be Found," Evan's school-assembly speech, an anthem that virally reaches others hurting in the way that Connor had been.
What the film can't effectively do is help the audience identify with Evan, who gains relationships he lacked through Connor's family at the potential expense of them, his single mom (Julianne Moore) and peers who have invested in his elaborate fable.
Some early criticism has felt like nitpicking (yes, older actors sometimes play high-school students), but the root problems are harder to escape. It's also difficult not to compare this adaptation with Apple TV+'s filmed version of another 2017 Tony nominee, "Come From Away," which preserves its power in a way this movie doesn't.
On the plus side, anyone who wanted to see "Dear Evan Hansen" on stage now has a chance, with the original star. Yet while the film says something that matters, for a show whose press notes proclaim it a "generation-defining Broadway phenomenon," a great deal appears to have been lost in translation.
"Dear Evan Hansen" premieres in US theaters on Sept. 24. It's rated PG-13.
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