For those of you keeping score, “Dear Evan Hansen” can officially be added to the long, long list of failed film adaptations of successful Broadway musicals.
That’s not to say it should be at the top of that list — the movie does offer affecting performances by Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg — but the sad reality is that “Dear Evan Hansen” has been both swallowed and exposed by the big screen.
The story of a high school outcast drawn into a massive deception about his relationship with a classmate who committed suicide, “Dear Evan Hansen” resonated onstage as a parable of adolescent isolation in the age of social media. Onscreen, it plays like a Very Special Episode of “Glee.’’
A significant part of the fault lies with star Ben Platt, reprising his Tony Award-winning role as Evan. On Broadway, Platt brought a fever-pitch, soul-baring intensity to his portrayal. On film, though, we see more of Evan’s tics than his soul.
Leaving aside the much-noted fact that Platt, who turns 28 on Friday, looks too old for the part, he too often retreats behind the jittery mannerisms that have characterized his post-Broadway work on Ryan Murphy’s “The Politician,’’ on Netflix, and “The Premise,’’ B.J. Novak’s FX on Hulu anthology series.
It’s a surface-skimming performance, and much the same is true of the movie as a whole. Yes, there has always been a certain slickness to “Dear Evan Hansen,’’ but the stage production managed — barely, at times — to stay on the right side of the line between heartfelt and maudlin. The film lurches across that line. Director Stephen Chbosky (”The Perks of Being a Wallflower,’’ “Wonder’') and screenwriter Steven Levenson work the levers of emotional manipulation so vigorously, and with so little finesse, that it’s hard to get truly invested in either Evan’s pain or his self-created dilemma.
That dilemma is a byproduct of Evan’s battle with anxiety and depression. To help him cope, the youth’s therapist has recommended that he write himself daily motivational notes that start with the salutation “Dear Evan Hansen.’’ One of those notes falls into the possession of a short-fused loner named Connor (Colton Ryan), who happens to be the brother of Zoe (Dever), on whom Evan has a crush.
When Connor kills himself and the note is found by his grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), they assume their son and Evan were friends. Evan lets that assumption stand, out of some blend of compassion for the parents, a desire to be close to Zoe, and his need for a family other than his own. His parents are divorced, he has little contact with his father, and his mother, played by Julianne Moore, is loving but struggling to juggle the needs of her troubled son with her responsibility as breadwinner. Moore lacks the edge of desperation Rachel Bay Jones brought to the role on Broadway. Adams, meanwhile, is saddled with some of the screenplay’s clunkiest lines and gets to do very little singing.
Matters snowball dramatically out of control when Evan delivers a speech (actually a song, “You Will Be Found’') at a school memorial service for Connor, and it goes viral. Evan becomes the face of The Connor Project — an online effort to raise funds to restore Connor’s favorite orchard, spearheaded by the high-achieving Alana (Stenberg) — as well as a symbol of the need to connect, to be seen.
“Dear Evan Hansen’' is ultimately too willing to let Evan off the hook for his duplicitous behavior, and we’re more conscious of how facile its story is because the musical numbers — the ballad-heavy score is by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — don’t land the way they did onstage, their wistfulness now registering as listless.
Will any of these problems, and the critical drubbing “Dear Evan Hansen” is receiving, dent its box office prospects? After all, from the moment of its Broadway premiere late in 2016, this musical has been fervently embraced by young audiences. I still remember the long lines of excited high schoolers outside the Music Box Theatre. Young fans helped make the 2017 cast album one of only four Broadway recordings (the other three are “Hamilton,’’ “The Book of Mormon,’’ and “Hair”) to crack the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart in the previous half-century.
The makers of “Dear Evan Hansen” owed them a better movie than this.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Directed by Stephen Chbosky. Written by Steven Levenson. Starring Ben Platt, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 137 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language, suggestive references).