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'Dear Evan Hansen' review: Cloying teenage musical a massive misfire


Ben Platt stars in big screen adaptation of Broadway hit that misses its target.

Dear Evan Hansen: go away.

This overly manipulative, creepy, saccharine teen musical drama, an adaptation of 2015's Tony-winning Broadway hit, is such a grand miscalculation that it fails on almost every front, from its casting to its depiction of grief to its rendering of online virality. "Dear Evan Hansen" is a movie you find yourself actively rooting against, along with the decisions of every character on screen. 

Ben Platt, who also starred in the stage version, reprises his role as Evan Hansen; at 27, he is three years older than Drew Barrymore was when she played an undercover high school student in "Never Been Kissed." Except Platt's part isn't played for laughs, even if the only thing you know about "Dear Evan Hansen" is the image of the actor standing in a high school hallway, which makes it look like a comedy based on Steve Buscemi's "how do you do, fellow kids?" meme.  

Evan is a deeply shy, anxiety-ridden loner who on the first day of his senior year writes himself a letter as a pep talk, an assignment from his therapist. "Dear Evan Hansen," it begins, and it includes all sorts of affirmations about having a good day by just being normal and fitting in that he knows, deep down, he won't be able to achieve.

He scraps it and starts over, turning it into a sort of confession of his loneliness, and thanks to a backup at the library's printer (hate when that happens!), the letter winds up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a troubled classmate of Evan's who taunts him about its contents and makes off with it in his pocket. Later, Connor ends up taking his own life. 

When the letter is found by Connor's parents (played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino), they treat it as a suicide note addressed to Evan, who they assume, due to its intro, was their son's only friend. Meeting with the parents, Evan intends to tell them Connor was nothing but a stranger to him, but he goes along with them in an effort to comfort them in their time of grief — or, more accurately, to not cause a fuss. In the moment, it's an awkward but understandable white lie. 

Complicating the issue is Evan's borderline-stalker crush on Connor's sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, who has been playing high school-age roles since 2013's "The Spectacular Now"). If this ruse gets him a little closer to her, what's the harm? 

Yes, what exactly is the harm of using the suicide of a classmate as emotional leverage to help score your dream girl? It's an incredibly thorny and devious issue and it's one that is danced around by director Stephen Chbosky, who also made 2012's similarly false "The Perks of Being a Wildflower," and screenwriter Steven Levenson. In different hands, "Dear Evan Hansen" could be a scathing, dark character study about manipulation and the perils of the modern world. Instead, it's a strangely unconvincing attempt at an inspirational story. 

Evan breaks into song as a means of communicating his feelings; the songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are always earnest, and intended to gain the sympathy of the audience. The issue of Evan's lies and the way they compound into bigger lies is treated like a runaway snowball, but his enjoyment of those perks — the sister of the dead teenager who is also his fantasy girl is now in his bedroom! — isn't handled with the emotional complexity that would make it come across as honest. Even Zack Morris dealt with more repercussions for his actions.

Evan is eventually roped into a charitable tribute to Connor that becomes his triumph as well as his undoing, while his mother (Julianne Moore) is off at work and is mostly in the dark and misses the whole thing where her son goes insanely viral because of a friendship he never had. There's a side plot with a popular, driven girl at school (Amandla Stenberg) who on the surface is everything Evan is not, but they bond over their shared medications and diagnoses. Teens these days, am I right? 

"Dear Evan Hansen" soft-peddles its murky underpinnings and aims for the light; it's a goth song covered by Michael Bolton. At the heart of the film is Platt's annoyingly tic-laden performance, which never comes off as authentic or believable; even Amy Adams is reduced to playing a naïve caricature of a grieving mother. Maybe it will catch fire on the camp circuit, where it can be celebrated for its failings; otherwise, "Dear Evan Hansen" is a letter best returned to sender.  

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Dear Evan Hansen'

GRADE: D

Rated PG-13: for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references

Running time: 137 minutes

In theaters