The young-adult musical Dear Evan Hansen bets everything that you will fall in love with Ben Platt in the title role. Half of the movie produced by Ben’s father, Marc, consists of close-ups of Platt singing his guts out, frequently while on the verge of tears, as he rips through one mediocre power-pop ballad after another. The songs are cliché-stuffed you-can-make-it life-affirming sludge-a-thons of the kind that cause you to switch stations whenever you hear Ariana Grande belting them on the radio.
I did not fall in love with Ben Platt in the title role, because as played by Ben Platt, Evan Hansen is a cringing, blanching, slumping, groaning, self-nullifying sinkhole of anti-charisma. He sings in such a glass-shatteringly high tenor that, rather than feeling sympathy for the boy’s sad plight, I fervently wished for him to shut up forever. Also, there is not a single minute of film in which Evan Hansen comes across as heterosexual, which is a problem when the main driver of the plot is Evan’s unrequited love for a girl.
Platt is a classic play-to-the-balcony creature of the Broadway theater, where he originated this role, and the movie seems mainly aimed at high-school girls who are too young to know why you shouldn’t bother developing crushes on the boys you meet while putting on Into the Woods. I didn’t buy the performance, I didn’t buy the love story, I didn’t buy the songs, and the lachrymose plot was far more interesting when it was called World’s Greatest Dad (2009) — a ripping Robin Williams satire that was written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.
Evan is a neurotic high schooler in therapy being raised without siblings in Bethesda, Md., by a single mom (Julianne Moore) who is kind but too busy to give him the emotional support he needs. As a therapeutic exercise, Evan writes a letter to himself every day, hence the film’s title. Thanks to a chance run-in with a disturbed and angry boy at school named Connor, who commits suicide a day or two later, one of Evan’s notes to himself is mistaken as a letter Connor wrote to Evan that doubles as his last word to the world. Because Evan is smitten with Connor’s cute sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, who starred in Booksmart), and because Connor’s grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) are desperate for stories about their lost son, Evan tells a little fib about a perfect day spent in an orchard with him. This lie spirals out of control: social media. But it gives Evan an opportunity to both spend time with Zoe and become a kind of substitute son to her wealthy, bereaved parents. They lavish him with the attention he never gets at home, and their mood lightens considerably each time Evan shares more heartwarming made-up stories about their son, who in reality was not at all lovable. So it’s win-win, for a while.
The opportunities for a satiric breather from the moping are everywhere, but instead the movie always chooses to max out with the earnest, soppy take at every turn. You’d think, for instance, that when the class activist–environmentalist–president of all clubs Alana (Amandla Stenberg) launches a charity in Connor’s memory that the movie would at least acknowledge that she’s a classic brownnoser who probably thinks — justifiably — that “The Connor Project” is her ticket to Harvard. But no, Alana isn’t being made fun of at all. She is just a misunderstood loner, too. Harvard, she never heard of. She joined all of those high-school clubs to fill the hole in her heart, not the one in her resume. There’s a very 21st-century scene in which she and Evan bond over the list of the nerve-smoothing medications they’re on. Let’s hear it for Lexapro and Ativan.
Alana reveals her true nature in one of about five factory-produced, misunderstood-loner songs (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) that the director, Stephen Chbosky, stages in repetitive ways, with the actors doing lots of soulful wandering up and down school hallways. No number is realized with any visual flair. Often people are just sitting around when they get to the warbling. Every time someone sings, by the way, he is singing only in his own imagination, which has a weird effect, especially in the duets. Bystanders in the vicinity react merely as though being spoken to, not sung at. It’s eerie, although I suppose not as eerie as it would be if people in mourning suddenly started busting loose with high-fructose pop ballads.
Apart from Platt, everyone else in the movie does fine, understanding that the weepy lyrics do most of the work and therefore do not require them to add sweetener to the heaping tub of pudding that is Steven Levenson’s script (adapted from the Broadway musical whose book he wrote). The one real standout is the only performer who is guaranteed not to get an Oscar nomination: Kaitlyn Dever as Zoe. She is a star in the making and has enough confidence in herself that she simply inhabits the role rather than making a big Broadway production out of it. Platt may be buried in accolades for the prodigious quantity of acting he does, but she’s the one you can’t stop watching.