Thursday, September 23, 2021

A much-admired musical sags on screen


     I’ve never seen the stage version of Dear Evan Hansen, so I can’t compare the award-winning play to the newly released movie of the same name. But taken purely as a movie, Dear Evan leaves a lot to be desired.
     The movie’s morbid fascinations — teen suicide being principal among them —aren't easily digested, even in a quasi-musical that seems born of good intentions.
     Evan Hansen has been classified as a musical and it requires its actors to sing at various points. The tunes  often have a soft, weepy quality that befits the material but on-screen Evan Hansen doesn't seem like a musical -- or a superior teen drama.
     The story centers on Evan Hansen, a high school senior portrayed by Ben Platt, who also played Evan on stage. Platt, I'm afraid, has grown out of the role. He’s now 27.
    But the real problem with Evan Hansen centers on an awkward mix of ingredients: A high-school drama (the alienated kid finds a place in a well-defined social scene) doesn’t always mesh with the tragedy of teen suicide.
    Working from Steven Levenson's screenplay, director Stephen Chbosky relies on single conceit. Evan’s therapist has asked his massively insecure patient to write encouraging letters to himself. 
   One of his letters winds up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), an aggressively troubled kid. When Connor commits suicide, he’s found with one of Evan's letters. Connor had lifted the letter from a printer and refused to return to its author.
    Everyone thinks, the letter — a confession of torment which begins with the words "Dear Evan Hansen" — was written by Connor and that Evan and Connor must, therefore, have been friends.
    Suffering from a host of ill-defined psychological difficulties, Evan isn’t exactly an endearing character. He beats back his conscience and opts to go along with the widespread assumption that he and Connor were buddies.
   He also has a crush on Connor's sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever).
   Before long, the school's students begin the Connor Project, an effort to raise money to create a memory garden at an orchard where Connor supposedly found solace. 
  If you can get past the distraction of Platt’s age, you’ll find a few performances that work, notably Amy Adams as Connor’s mother, a woman in denial, and Julianne Moore as Evan’s single mother, an overworked nurse who’s stretched too thin to give her son the attention he needs. Amandla Stenberg has a nice turn as Alana, a cheerleader and high-performing student with troubles of her own. 
    But none of the performances can save a strange hybrid of teen-movie tropes and hand-wringing drama -- all of it followed by the hope that's appended to the story when Evan faces up to his cruel deceit.
   As for the dead Connor: He remains more of a plot device than a character we’re asked to understand.  Maybe on stage it all made sense.

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