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Dear Evan Hansen review: ‘Hard to know what the filmmakers were aiming for’

The latest stage musical to transfer to the big screen has talent to burn but fails to dazzle, writes Simon Brew.

The third film this year to land on our screens that’s drawn from a hit musical, Dear Evan Hansen arguably comes weighed down with more plaudits on stage than its two forerunners.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’sIn the Heights made it to film first, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie landed last month, and we’ve still got Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story to come this Christmas.

There is, however, a strong chance that Dear Evan Hansen will be the least well-received of this year’s musical films. And the one that should have stuck to the stage.

The acclaimed musical – not one I’ve seen, I confess – tells of Evan, an introverted, bullied teenager whose therapist suggests he write himself letters to try to find the good in his days.

One of those letters is taken from him by Connor, an ostensibly traditional school bully. And it’s Connor’s parents who reunite Evan with the letter, mistaking it as a missive to him from their son. An apparently important one, given that Connor has just taken his own life.

Going very light on detail, the story then takes an unexpected turn. Amy Adams and Danny Pino play Connor’s mother and stepfather respectively, and they – with Evan’s ultimate encouragement – come to believe that the two teens were very good friends.

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It’s a lie and deceit that grows, ensnaring both Connor’s sister – played by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever – and Evan’s mother (a brief appearance by Julianne Moore).

Lots of themes are thus woven together here. The impact of social media, mental health, bullying, trying to fit in and teen suicide. And it seems it’s all in good hands, given director Stephen Chbosky has made two strong school-based films with The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder.

Furthermore, the stage show creatives – music duo Justin Paul and Benj Pasek and book writer Steven Levenson – have been involved as they carry their work to the screen.

Yet it starts going wrong quickly. There’s no easy way around it either: it’s apparent very early on that the film has been fatally miscast.

Ben Platt is an award-winning actor who played the title role to great acclaim on Broadway. But that was some time ago, and it’s hard to accept him as a high-school student here. It’s notable to the point where it undermines key moments of the film. It doesn’t help that the film’s first act is so uneven anyway, and it takes until around the halfway mark for the movie to find its feet.

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But even then it feels like there are significant gaps, and I’m assuming a fair amount of the musical has been truncated for film. That’s not a deal-breaker, but one of the triumphs of, say, Wonder, was a willingness to explore a story from many different angles. Bluntly, Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t do that.

As I understand it, the stage show is more rounded and accomplished, and crucially gives proper agency to characters who are clearly vital to the story.

In particular it’s the character of Connor who’s given short shrift. He’s there at the start and he pops up a smattering of times throughout the film. But he feels as though he’s there to serve the character of Evan, and there’s no three-dimensional figure underneath the name.

He becomes the person who committed suicide, and it’s staggering how little more substance he gets.

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Finally, and equally troubling, the character of Evan? Well, he’s just not very nice. His actions are unpleasant, his only difficulties sidelined, and by the end he’s pretty much impossible to root for.

Which leaves the film in an odd place. It does have moments, and it does have things to say. But it has its conversations in such an awkward and ill-formed way, it’s hard quite to know what the filmmakers were aiming for, let alone what to take from it. A misfire, sadly.

Two out of five stars

Dear Evan Hansen is in cinemas from October 22

@simonbrew

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