DEAR EVAN HANSEN has broken all contracts

The new stage-to-film musical Dear Evan Hansen tosses out established, unspoken contracts left, right, and center. It nixes the contract between stage production and audience, dictating that the energy of live theater overrides desire for literal realism in casting, sets, and developing relationships. It violates the contract between film musical and audience, where we accept the artifice of characters breaking into song and/or dance, so long as those songs or performances sweep us out of the dull constraints of the real world with emotion or spectacle. Perhaps most famously, it breaks, breaks, and re-breaks our collective agreement that it is permissible for actors well into their twenties to pretend to be teenagers on screen, so that we may enjoy the fruits of cruel 16-hour-a-day shooting schedules and more finely honed acting instincts.

On this point, I wondered—as I think others have—whether in a way, Dear Evan Hansen might be extraordinarily effective. Most teenage-misfit stories produced by major Hollywood studios feature misfits who have, at best, slightly obscured their supernatural-yet-conventional attractiveness with costuming, or “overcome” any perceived deficiencies in catalog-model attractiveness with boundless charisma. I haven’t seen the stage version of Evan Hansen played by Ben Platt, but his cinematic incarnation is genuinely, thoroughly, irretrievably off-putting, and also played by Ben Platt.

Ben Platt is just about 28 years old. He may have been as young as 26 when he shot Dear Evan Hansen, where he plays a kid around 17 or 18—a senior in high school. He’s hardly the most egregious twentysomething teen in movie history. Emma Stone played a high school senior in 2007, a college student in 2008, a high school student again in 2010, multiple grown and working women in 2011, and then back to high school super-senior status in 2012—and again in 2014! She was likely about 25 when she performed a scene wherein she gives her valedictory commencement speech in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Let’s not even talk about the decade Emma Roberts spent pretending to be hovering around 18.

However: Credit is due to the Emmas. So much of the disconnect in watching them play people who still have to go homeroom in the morning comes from the cumulative power of creating an on-screen persona. Emma Stone isn’t bad at acting like a high schooler in The Amazing Spider-Man 2; it just comes seven years after skillfully playing a similar part in Superbad and skillfully playing other parts in subsequent years. As actors spend more time with us, time passages and chronology imposes itself. Ben Platt, meanwhile, is far less well-known than Emma Stone. But he sweats his way through the high-school hallways of Dear Evan Hansen like he’s a 45-year-old man on the lam, hastily disguising himself as a teenager and rightfully paranoid that at any moment he will be discovered, apprehended, and brought to justice, clinging to the hope that he can avoid detection by speaking as softly and tentatively as possible, in hopes that his reticence will cause him to disappear from view.

That last bit is where Dear Evan Hansen obtains its gruesome touches of realism. There are, no doubt, teenagers as uncomfortable in their own skin as Platt’s Evan, whose hearts yearn with emotional songs that go unsung in the confines of their miserable, real lives. Platt expertly evokes the fear and loathing of adolescence by hunching his shoulders, speaking softly wearing clothes that look like what I wore to try to skirt loose business-casual rules during nearly two decades of office jobs. And also by looking like a 45-year-old man and, as such, woefully adrift in a high school hallway. He’s such a believable outcast that he undermines the entire premise: That Evan, through an odd chance encounter, is mistaken for the only close friend of Connor, the brother of Evan’s crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever)—after Connor has taken his own life. When the school comes to believe that Evan knew Connor, Evan’s classmates more friendly and accepting of him (and, for that matter, Connor, who was pretty antisocial in life). Given Platt’s tremulous performance, a more realistic reaction from the other teenagers would be to start a murder podcast about the 45-year-old man who clearly killed a teenager and passed it off as suicide.

But tellingly, Dear Evan Hansen isn’t much concerned with high school life—not really. Like a tried-and-true dork, it wants to hang with the parents. Evan is drawn into this mess because Connor’s mom Cynthia (Amy Adams) finds a note addressed to Evan in Connor’s pocket. But the note was written by Evan himself, as an exercise assigned by his therapist; Connor steals it from the printer just after signing the cast on Evan’s broken arm, creating a perfect storm of unintentional, circumstantial evidence that makes Connor and Evan look like secret besties. Sensing Cynthia’s need to believe that her son had at least some fleeting moments of happiness, and thunderstruck by his newfound proximity to Zoe, Evan further fabricates his relationship with Connor, even faking some email exchanges that cast Connor (and Evan) in a better, more comforting light.

It’s an interesting moral dilemma, plucked and de-thorned from the movie World’s Greatest Dad, where Robin Williams played a failed writer who fakes his son’s suicide note—and later, after the note is unexpectedly embraced by his classmates, other writing. I guess maybe it’s not so much a dilemma as a screw-up—a well-intentioned lie that spirals way out of control. In other words, a familiar story with new particulars. What’s so disastrous about that?

In a weird way, again Dear Evan Hansen does achieve the effect it’s going for, in that the whole movie feels like an out-of-control lie: Its phoniness, starting from Platt’s masquerade and building from there, compounds and compounds, and no one involved, especially not director Stephen Chbosky, is willing to call the bluff. Platt gives the worst performance, in the sense that it feels like you’re watching a police sketch of Jason Biggs go through psychotherapy against its will. But there’s a different sort of badness in watching Amy Adams and Julianne Moore (as Evan’s mom) flounder through material so ill-considered—and so stubborn that it assigns experienced musical participant Adams a third of one song to sing, and Moore a solo that springs from a subplot that feels like it was cut to accommodate the movie’s lean and mean… just kidding, it runs 137 minutes anyway.

But rejiggering the songs probably wouldn’t change much. Anyone in Dear Evan Hansen can sing any of the songs, because three-quarters of them are the same, with the same precious structure: A single quiet line to start out the song, with the final word following a pause and… spoken. And then the whispery theater-emo crescendos into a yearnspirational power ballad, the specialty of songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who, in terms of their past work, have written Greatest Showman bombast and lazily dressed it up as La La Land-style emotional directness.

None of this would be a problem if… well, if it wasn’t all a bunch of problems. Almost nothing about Dear Evan Hansen works, because even the parts that kinda-sorta do work—Dever’s Zoe, wrestling with her ambivalent feelings of grief over a brother whose mental health issues bordered on abusive to her; Adams trying her best to bring a bunch of rich-mom-dilletante cliches to life; Amandla Stenberg’s performance as an overachiever masking her own struggles with clubs and social activism—are rendered with the same washed-out, antiseptic fakeness and forced to repeatedly knock against immovable objects like clunky dialogue, vague treatment of every mental health issue the movie touches upon, and a seventeen-year-old’s obvious decrepitude. Maybe it’s the actual environment of the movie: It’s of distractingly unconvincing set dressing. Zoe’s room has the obligatory art-directing cliches (in this case, a neatly assembled wall of photos hung on string), while Evan’s kitchen counter at one point has multiple breakfast foods sitting out in a row on plates and bowls.

This, I think, is why the film version has been greeted with so much more horror over Evan’s behavior which, I’ve variously read, is sociopathic, selfish, and unforgivably glorified. The story is clearly and plainly about Evan doing something bad, but feeling too meek, then too mortified then too uncertain, then too happy (in his newfound closeness to Connor’s family) to tell on himself. The movie does not end in unequivocal triumph, and it never especially lionizes Evan except to say that he is deserving of our empathy. That shouldn’t be a big ask, and yet the movie is so consistently tin-eared, so eager to punctuate its emotional breakthroughs with one more watching-from-the-distance-but-you-will-be-found-if-we-could-only-find-the-words song of emo-babble, that everyone’s behavior becomes suspect; the weirdo who looks like he’s terrified of giving a PowerPoint presentation at an accounting seminar is merely the most suspicious of the lot. For example: Why does Zoe like Evan? Why does the “family friend” who professes to not like Evan figure into the plot? Is Evan really singing at the big memorial assembly, or is the movie rendering his speech as a fantastical song sequence? Is Evan’s family lower-middle-class, or just less rich than Connor’s?

While I’m asking questions: Is it fair to bring up Cats? Yes, but perhaps not in the way that you’re thinking. Dear Evan Hansen is not a hallucinatory riot of unintentional laughter. At the press screening I attended, it did not receive the rare sarcastic applause I heard at the Cats screening in 2019. I’m reasonably sure that I heard some folks audibly choking up at certain moments. Fans of the stage show may like it, even if their numbers will be dwarfed by the disappointment that they are not enough to produce a box-office sensation down at the ol’ cinema. But it does share something with its feline sibling in the Universal Pictures modern musical library: a sense that the filmmakers are attempting a translation job that eludes them. Rather than synthesizing teenage melodrama, theater-kid earnestness, and realistic depiction of mental health struggles, Dear Evan Hansen treats those elements as different languages, feeding them into a chain of automated translators until it all becomes incomprehensible. It’s the movie’s truest, most adolescent impulse: That it can power through all this tumult through sheer, omnidirectional emotion and a bunch of ill-advised cramming.