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Movie review: Transition from stage to screen reveals flaws of 'Dear Evan Hansen'
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Movie review

Movie review: Transition from stage to screen reveals flaws of 'Dear Evan Hansen'

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“Dear Evan Hansen” centers on a depressed teen (Ben Platt) with an overworked single mom (Julianne Moore).

It didn’t have to be this way. Or maybe, it was always going to be this way. Yet, it’s still strange to watch the translation from stage to screen of a Tony-winning hit musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” go so horribly awry.

Or perhaps, despite the fandom and the awards for best musical, best score, best actor and best actress, this musical about a depressed teen who gets caught up in a big, bad lie about a classmate’s suicide was a bit suspect to begin with.

There’s much to unpack, including the much-ballyhooed casting of star Ben Platt, who originated the title role when the musical premiered six years ago, and reprises the role for the film at age 27. Platt strains credulity playing a shy, insecure and lonely teenager not so much because he looks too old, but rather that his trying to seem young is so sweatily effortful.

Indeed, the Evan Hansen who appears in the film directed by Steven Chbosky is one of the most bizarre cinematic portrayals of a teenager, due to all the effort to make Platt, a certifiable hunk, look and seem like a nerdy social outcast with crippling anxiety.

From his curly bangs and wan complexion to his awkward postures and darting eyes, it’s a characterization that may have worked onstage but doesn’t in close-up. It’s distracting, never allowing the viewer to fall into this story, and this project requires an incredible amount of goodwill and suspension of disbelief.

Steven Levenson adapts his own award-winning book for the musical to the screen, which is loosely based on an incident that took place at composer Benj Pasek’s high school.

The story’s perspective is on Evan, an isolated kid with no friends and an overworked single mom (Julianne Moore). He’s highly medicated and tasked by his therapist with writing pep-talk letters to himself.

On the first day of school, troubled student Connor (Colton Ryan) zeroes in on Evan, screaming at him, scrawling his name on the cast of his broken arm and snatching his letter. Noticing a mention of his sister, Zoe (Kaitlin Dever), Connor pockets the printout and storms off.

When he later commits suicide, and the letter is found on his body, his parents, Cynthia and Larry (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), assume it’s a suicide note to his only friend, Evan.

Assumptions and lies tumble out of control, as Evan loves being embraced by this wealthy and warm family, as well as being close to his crush, Zoe, while Cynthia loves thinking that her disturbed drug addict son had a friend. It’s an incredibly toxic combo of co-dependency and magical thinking that chugs along until it all blows up in everyone’s faces.

While all of this is happening, characters are breaking into song, tearfully belting earnest ballads written by Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman”) in kitchens, bedrooms and pep rallies. The leap to the “movie realistic” world on screen removes the veneer of artifice afforded by a theatrical setting, and the film simply can’t sustain that level of cognitive dissonance.

The effort put into making this film work is palpable, but the result is something deeply surreal and strange.

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