TORONTO — Evan Hansen has got to be the most successful teenage pathological liar of all time. He’s gone from an intimate off-Broadway musical to a major studio film starring multiple Oscar nominees. Not bad for a guy with no friends and one shirt.
Where, though, does he fit in better?
During the world premiere of the moving movie “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Toronto International Film Festival Thursday night, a nagging question kept coming up: Should this thing still be a musical?
The plot — controversial for many — has always been brilliant. Because of a miscommunication, the parents of a young student who killed himself are led to believe that Evan (Ben Platt), a high-school misfit, was his best and only friend. Lonely, depressed, empty Evan decides to play along, and becomes popular and loved by everybody as a result. Then, like Icarus with a Snapchat, he comes crashing down to earth.
Such deviousness — not to mention a complex take on the social media age — doesn’t seem like it would be the perfect canvas for Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s terrific pop score that’s filled with catchy and touching tunes. But onstage it works astoundingly well. The show developed a rabid teen fanbase, and it wrings out the tears of many a crossed-armed grown man.
Onscreen, though, the songs take some getting used to.
“Evan Hansen” is a story set in living rooms, bedrooms and school hallways, and director Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being A Wallflower”) keeps all these places realistic. Too realistic. Unlike, say, “In The Heights,” there is a plainness to this suburban environment that can make you tune out.
Rather than turning on a spotlight, so to speak, to differentiate the music from the speaking scenes, Chbosky fuses them together. Sometimes that dressed-down method is off-putting, and other times it’s inspired and confrontational, particularly in the second half when Evan’s life begins to crumble.
However, while a string of ballads for 2 ½ hours can soar onstage, they can sag a film. A few songs have been cut, and a couple decent pieces have been added, mainly for Amandla Stenberg who plays a girl who starts a fundraising campaign after Connor’s suicide. Still, there are unquestionably too many musical numbers here. Many would be more effective as spoken dialogue.
The one factor that made me OK with a lot of sad ballads being sung at kitchen tables is Ben Platt.
Poor Platt has gotten a lot of grief for being 27 years old and playing a high-school senior. In reality, he was the victim of one of the worst movie trailers I’ve ever laid eyes on. Know that the film and Platt are much better than that two-minute debacle.
He’s good — excellent, really. The Tony Award winner tones down his stage performance just enough for the big screen, but retains Evan’s quick sense of humor and lovable nature, despite his misdeeds. He pummels you in the end.
The actor also clicks remarkably well with the many big personalities he’s surrounded by. Julianne Moore plays his hard-working mom and Amy Adams is the wealthy mother of Connor. Both women have different, nuanced takes on what it is to be a desperate parent. It’s some of the subtlest work from both actresses in a while. I also adored Nik Dodani, who plays Evan’s sort-of pal Jared, who lands every single joke.
What’s best about the film, though, is it’s done a far better job of explaining Evan’s lies — he forges happy memories with Connor in part to have some happy memories for himself — and allows him to make amends rather than escape scot-free.
That happens during a radically changed ending, involving a beautiful new song sung by Ryan, that makes you wish it could be incorporated into the Broadway show somehow. As Evan and Co. sing, all it would take is a little reinvention.