We may as well get this out of the way now: Ben Platt is 28 years old.
He was 23 when he originated the lead role of Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, after playing the anxious, socially awkward high school student in out-of-town and Off-Broadway runs. Platt would eventually win the Tony for Hansen, and the Broadway production itself would go home with nine awards, including Best Musical. It was more or less instantly canonized by the pundits, the public, and the Powers That Be (Musical Theater Division), with many people singling out Platt’s vocal range and physically taxing, open-wound performance. The praise wasn’t unanimous — even Hamilton, in its monocultural heyday, had its dissenters — but that didn’t stop its star from being the subject of fawning profiles. His last performance as Evan was on November 19th, 2017. A career as a next-gen Tommy Tune was more or less assured.
None of that guaranteed that a screen adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen starring Platt as a teenager who finds himself reluctantly caught up in a lie, and then not-so-reluctantly letting that lie metastasize for his own benefit, would duplicate the magic of his Broadway tenure. There’s a big difference between the ages of 17 and 23; but the gap between the late teens and slouching toward thirtysomething is practically a chasm. We’re not talking Stockard Channing in Grease here, but it’s close. Still, a hundred performances and a Tony is not bad in terms of proof of concept.
And yet: Although the news that Platt would reprise his role had been out there for a while, when the trailer dropped, you’d have thought he had personally gone to folks’ houses and slapped their children. He’s too damn old, they said. What the hell is up with that curly-haired wig he’s rocking, they said. (It was not a wig, Platt later confirmed.) He’s the only original cast member who was brought back, and him being here in the first place is ridiculous and it will undermine the entire project, they said. When the early reviews and tweets began to pour in after the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, things went from a house fire to the Hindenberg. Opinions ranged from “a curve-crashing after-school special” to “makes the casting of AN OBVIOUSLY GROWN MAN JUST HUNCHING HIS SHOULDERS an act of sabotage.” A few days before it opens in theaters, the film holds a 44-percent “splat” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, should you take stock in such things. Dear Evan Hansen the play was beloved. Why do people hate Dear Evan Hansen the movie so much?
It’s a question worth asking, especially once you see the film and realize that so much of Platt’s performance not only replicates what he did onstage, it continues to ring true to the source material. No, the close-ups do not exactly obscure the fact that Platt is not an adolescent. There are moments when the actor doesn’t seem to have received the memo that playing to the stalls and playing to the camera are two separate things. And the opening number, composers Benji Pastek and Justin Paul’s emo show-tune anthem “Waving Through a Window” — the musical’s original kickstarter, “Anybody Got a Map,” is regrettably AWOL — seems to have been edited via arrhythmically timed, arbitrarily screamed cues. It doesn’t initially inspire confidence in the filmmaking. It’s the opposite of a promising start.
But it’s Platt’s nervous energy, his naked lack of comfort in his own skin, those aforementioned “hunched shoulders” and his strained neck — he’s like a turtle trying to force his way out of a shell — that gets you through the first act’s rough patches and exposition dumps. The setup is the same: Evan writes himself a note of self-affirmation, which is intercepted by Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan). Evan is worried that this brooding, raging misfit will post it online; instead, he’s called to the principal’s office and informed by Connor’s mother (Amy Adams) and stepfather (Danny Pino) that the boy has taken his own life. The letter was found in the late teen’s pocket, which — along with Connor having sarcastically signed his name on Evan’s arm cast — lead the Murphys to assume the two were friends. He tries to deny it until, in a moment of profound empathy for these grieving parents, or maybe a desperate need to feel loved, or some toxic combo of both, Evan gingerly goes along with their misguided notion. If it gets Connor’s band-geek sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), to talk to him, all the better.
This is the moment in the story where you either find our hero sympathetic or borderline sociopathic, and where Platt’s portrayal of a stammering, emotionally needy 17-year-old becomes your ticket into the narrative or a complete deal-breaker. That’s assuming, of course, you’re willing to accept an attempt to balance everyday realism with the tenets of a Broadway musical, and with teenagers comparing pharmaceutical regimens and panic attacks in between bursting into the sorts of big songs that rattle a theater’s rafters. For those who didn’t fall in love with the play at first sight, the mere notion of a musical about teenage suicide and pop-psychology manipulation feels icky, as if the issues at hand are merely fodder for cheap despair and even cheaper uplift. When Evan and his best friend, Jared (Nik Dodani), start to gin up fake correspondence to deepen the ruse, you wonder how deep it’s heading into queasy Patricia Highsmith territory: Meet the Talented Mr. Hansen, emotional parasite.
And then, out of the blue, “Sincerely, Me” shows up, and it’s as if the movie suddenly kicks into gear. It’s not just that the showstopping number offers a shaft of light in the darkness, or even that the imagined friendship between Evan and Connor is turned into a resetting song-and-dance routine, with Jared injecting Statler & Waldorf-style commentary into the revelry. It’s that Dear Evan Hansen remembers how screen musicals work, and that it is one. The fact that Ryan is a first-rate hoofer, and the chemistry between him and Platt fuels their syncopated routines together, helps immensely. But you can also credit director Stephen Chbosky, cinematographer Brandon Trost, editor Anne McCabe and choreographer Jamaica Craft for constructing something that gives this film a life force. You get to see these performers perform, and the wish-fulfillment aspect of Evan’s ruse becomes less of a one-dimensional black hole.
From there, the movie finds a far steadier footing, and even when some other numbers don’t hit the heights you want them to (the three-way family elegy “Requiem” never really gels), the course correction begins to work wonders. Platt’s work with the other actors feels like more of a give-and-take, especially with Dever — who’s quietly, consistently wonderful here — and Amandla Stenberg, playing the overachieving, valedictorian-or-GTFO Alana Beck; her take on one of Justin Paul’s new songs, “The Anonymous Ones,” almost makes up for the absence of a few original tunes. The casting of Julianne Moore as Evan’s mother feels odd at first, especially when you get to her one and only track, the single-parent lament “So Big/So Small,” which she doesn’t sing so much as semi-melodically sob through. By the end of the number, however, you understand exactly why the filmmakers wanted her: She breaks open the heart of the thing and breaks down viewers’ resistance in one fell swoop. As for this movie’s bona fides as musical interpretation, it’s not an outright disaster like Cats. It’s not even The Prom.
But back to Platt, and the question posed in this review’s headline. So much of the ire directed at this admittedly flawed adaptation does focus on the star in the center of its orbit, to the point where the case against Dear Evan Hansen feels remarkably personal. Maybe Evan Hansen as a character is, per a Slate article, simply a creep, and maybe Platt’s ugly-cry of a performance emphasizes these aspects in a way that’s off-putting even without the age gap. Chbosky previously directed the movie of his novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and you could argue that both he and his lead lean into this story’s perks (and pitfalls) of being a waffling liar with too much unbridled enthusiasm.
Except you’d then have to willfully ignore how fully committed Platt is to presenting this stifled young man, and the way getting something approaching a connection to other people allows him to channel a world of hurt and want and joy and grief though Hansen. I keep going back to a scene during the song “Words Fail,” in which he gets to the crescendo and the line “the worst of me!” His voice cracks, his face crumbles, and his entire body turns into the equivalent of one giant, wracked shriek. You don’t see a man pretending to be a vulnerable, closed-off boy. You see someone who knows he’s given in to temptation and whose worst fears have come true. You see Evan Hansen, all of his flaws and desires and self-loathing laid bare. And there are enough of these goosebump-inducing, epiphanic moments courtesy of the actor that you see why people might love this film as well as cringe at it. Platt does not ruin the movie. He singlehandedly gives it a voice.