Dear Evan Hansen the theatrical production is one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of the past 10 years. Dear Evan Hansen the movie spends nearly two-and-a-half hours making that fact read like an Onion headline.
The film adaptation is on trend with other recent Broadway adaptations, but we’d all have been better off if someone had locked this film in a crate and shipped it off to that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. To put it mildly, Dear Evan Hansen is an abject disaster, the Driving Miss Daisy of mental-illness movies mixed with whatever the byproduct would be of Todd Solondz sleepwalking into an abandoned studio and directing a pitch-black Disney Channel Original Movie.
The stage show, which won six Tony awards, probably did a better job of masking the profound discomfort of the cringeworthy plot with its cheesy show tunes and competent staging. The film lurches along, fumbling any sort of creativity or engagement that is successful onstage. Ben Platt, who won a Tony for the titular role onstage, returns to the teenage character that made his career, and it might be one of the worst casting choices made since Adam Sandler decided to dress in drag to play his own twin sister in Jack and Jill. Whatever effort was made to disguise Platt’s age (27) backfires with fury. On top of that, his performance is overwrought and distracting — any sort of momentum the film tries to build drained out by Platt’s mopey overacting. It’s as if Garfield the cat was given 12 pixie sticks and asked to do Shakespeare.
The film wavers between grotesque and exhausting. Director Stephen Chbosky made a deeply affecting teen drama in 2012’s superb The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Dear Evan Hansen is the antithesis of that movie. Whereas Wallflower told a relatable story about teen's struggles and didn’t for a second mine those struggles for schmaltz, Hansen tries to find inspiration in a bewildering plot. The titular character — and the script itself — does not understand that once you go certain places, you don’t get to come back.
In other hands, this might’ve been a powerful cautionary tale about just how destructive mental illness can be among our nation’s hyperconnected youth. The premise involves a shockingly unearned musical number from Evan himself that goes viral as inspiration for those struggling with depression, anxiety, loneliness and more. Filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait depicted similar bleakness with 2009’s brilliant World’s Greatest Dad, a tale of similar trickery-after-tragedy that consistently acknowledges how awful its story is and still manages to find some sort of empathy for its deeply flawed protagonist (still among Robin Williams’ best performances). Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t know how to balance the weight of Evan’s actions with the excuses for why he is taking them.
If you listen to some of the songs without contemplating the film's shaky morality, you might legitimately get a fleeting sense of uplift. If Dear Evan Hansen helps at least one person actually dealing with mental illness, then it is worthy of existence. Mental illness is an epidemic in many of our communities, and as the film posits, there are people who will love and support you despite it all. You will be found, but obviously, being found is just the start of a very difficult journey that this film doesn’t even vaguely acknowledge.
Those struggling with mental illness can live happy, full, fantastic lives and have wonderful communities who support them and help them along their journey. This film tries to connect the beginning and the end of that kind of journey without any acknowledgement of the middle, which is of course the most important part. One uplifting song and a few pats on the back do not resolve the dire complexities of depression, anxiety, OCD or any number of mental health issues. The film and play both fail to understand that.
By making mental illness the type of obstacle that’s conquered in Katy Perry’s noxious anthem “Roar,” Dear Evan Hansen further cements itself as well-meaning but grossly shallow and uncomfortably opaque. It’s one of the worst American films I've seen in the past few years and makes Cats look like 1961’s West Side Story. Listen to the music if you like, but leave this movie in the dust. It is wholly unworthy of your time.