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‘Dear Evan Hansen’: The truth is, this musical is manipulative, and strange

Upbeat tunes and a heavy storyline about teen suicide make a cringey combo.

In “Dear Evan Hansen,” the title character (Ben Platt, left) works with another student (Amandla Stenberg) on a memorial to a classmate who killed himself.
Universal Pictures

The problem with “Dear Evan Hansen” the movie is “Dear Evan Hansen” the Broadway musical, which somehow won six Tony Awards and was a commercial hit despite a problematic, manipulative, cynical and creepy storyline asking us to empathize with an admittedly troubled teenager who tells an unspeakably cruel lie and proceeds to double down on that falsehood again and again, even as he realizes he’s causing lasting emotional damage to a grieving family.

Dear Evan Hansen: You’re the worst.

The adaptation is a curiously strange effort, as director Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) films the story like an indie drama, with straightforward, realistic, dialogue-driven scenes — and then every 10 minutes or so, a character breaks into song, and it seems much more contrived and jolting than something like “La La Land.” It doesn’t help that Ben Platt (reprising his Tony Award-winning role) is still playing the part as if he’s onstage and aiming for the rafters, while the supporting ensemble including Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams and Amandla Stenberg are performing in more subtle, film-friendly notes.

Platt’s Evan Hansen is a shy and depressed kid whose therapist has given him the assignment of writing encouraging letters to himself. The printout of one such letter falls into the hands of the volatile bully and loner Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) — and when Connor commits suicide and the note is found in his pocket, Connor’s family mistakenly believe Evan was Connor’s only friend, and they turn to Evan for comfort.

So, after a teen suicide is used as a plot contrivance, Evan decides that rather than coming clean to Connor’s mother, Cynthia (Amy Adams), stepfather Larry (Danny Pino) and little sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), he’ll concoct an elaborate, ongoing lie about his non-existent friendship with Connor, manufacturing a series of emails they shared and telling ridiculous stories about their adventures together. (Sidebar: Why would a teenager write to a friend with the salutation, “Dear Evan Hansen,” as if it’s 1825?) We understand Evan has been in emotional pain for a long time and is need of help, but still: He allows a well-meaning classmate (an excellent Amandla Stenberg) to spearhead an online fundraiser in Connor’s memory, he sings the show’s signature anthem “You Will Be Found” at a service for Connor and he enters into a romance with Zoe — all under false pretenses. The tonal disconnect between this darker-than-dark material and the ultimately upbeat nature of this tale simply cannot be reconciled.

There’s been a lot of chatter about how the 27-year-old Ben Platt looks far too mature to be playing the title character — though there’s no denying the power of his voice as he belts out one standard-issue Broadway tune after another. And in truth, virtually everyone playing high school students in this adaptation, from 24-year-old Kaitlin Dever to 26-year-old Colton Ryan to 27-year-old Nik Dodani (as a family friend of Evan’s), looks as if they should be playing young teachers instead of students. But even with more age-appropriate casting, it’s difficult to imagine a version of “Dear Evan Hansen” that wouldn’t make me cringe.