Toward the end of the new musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” Julienne Moore sings “So Big/So Small,” a lament for the difficulty of parenthood and especially single parenthood. It’s the best song in the film and the only one I’d like to hear a second time. It’s impossible not to be moved by the song’s gentle melody, the poetically honest lyrics, and Moore’s compassionate performance. Unfortunately, what has preceded this moment features much less honesty and is far more uncomfortable.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is about the dangers of lying, to oneself and to others, and the teenage title character (Ben Platt, 30 years old and digitally de-aged) tells a doozy. Through a series of somewhat convenient circumstances, any of which is a missed opportunity to come clean, the chronically shy and parentally neglected Evan claims that he was the best friend of Conner Murphy, a mentally ill and friendless teen who recently committed suicide.
Connor’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) naturally want Evan to share things about Connor that Connor wouldn’t share with them himself so they can understand why Connor made such a tragic and drastic choice. Not knowing what to say, Evan chooses to just make stuff up. Much to his shock, his act is a hit; he becomes respected at school, finds a girl who likes him (Connor’s sister Zoe, played convincingly by Kaitlyn Dever), and is informally adopted by Connor’s grief-stricken parents.
Narratively, there is a big problem here: Evan is not a sympathetic character. If anything he’s actually the closest thing the film has to a villain, but he’s also the protagonist. We’re supposed to care about him because of his crippling anxiety, but he’s a bit of a sociopath who’s having quite a nice time making things better for himself while exploiting the grief of a victim’s family. The ends do not justify the means, and as much as the film would like us to also see Evan as a victim, he’s not. Despite amble opportunities to unburden himself, he never does until it’s much too late and he’s broken the hearts and trust of everyone who believed in his friendship with Connor.
As a result, the film unfolds with a sense of dread in anticipation of the moment when all of this will come crashing down. Dread is not entertaining, and waiting for the truth to come out and break everyone’s hearts is painful and difficult to watch; it gave me a stomachache. I can’t remember a recent film with a less sympathetic main character, despite last-minute attempts to redeem him before the credits roll.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is also a musical, although not a very good one. The songs are, for the most part, lyrically leaden and indistinguishable from each other. In fact, the individual songs are so similar and interchangeable that I couldn’t tell when I was hearing a fresh melody or a reprise. Not a single tune stuck with me past the front door of the theater, and they all seem to have the same tone and orchestration.
For all of its faults, however, it must be said that the performances are excellent up-and-down. Ben Platt, although a dozen years too old for the part he originated on Broadway, is believably vulnerable even when making terrible decisions. Julianne Moore, Amy Adams and Danny Pino all provide nuanced performances of parents who are doing their best under terrible circumstances in which just getting up in the morning is a Herculean achievement. Finally, Amandla Stenberg and Nik Dodani provide much-needed energy and humor as Evan’s classmates who are affected by his cycle of lies. Particularly impressive is that each actor sings their part live rather than relying on dubbing and lip-synching.
The director of “Dear Evan Hansen” is Stephen Chbosky, who gave us a much superior film about dread and grief, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I loved that movie and wish “Dear Evan Hansen” had a bit of its style, verve, and humor despite the dark subject matter and tragic character developments.
There is definitely an audience for “Dear Evan Hansen,” as it’s based on a very successful musical that continues to tour the world. The film wants to be about acceptance of people who suffer from mental illness and in that way, the film has its heart in the right place. However, “Dear Evan Hansen” also wants us to understand, and perhaps approve of, the choices Evan makes. Not even a touching mother’s song could convince me of that.
“Dear Evan Hansen”
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Rated PG-13 (suicide, some suggestive references, brief strong language, thematic material)
Opens today at Laemmle Newhall and Regal Edwards Valencia
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.