“Dear Evan Hansen” is a mood and a sensation that is precise and sloppy, wholly alarming, capturing the fact, the act of dissociation as daily reactivity, as reflex, the weight of waking and wakefulness when you are young and wish you were already dead. (Dead. Not insensate. Dead. As in d-e-a-d.) Ben Platt’s performance is one from the ages: it is hopeful—even when you dare look back into those ever-panicked eyes—even as trapped, trapped, even while rustling under the weighted blanket of ameliorating Pharma. He’s twitchy, twitchy as fuck. You want to look away but you can’t, there he is, here he is, singing out his unfinished heart.
Every possible thing that Platt does in the hunching, gnarling, keening post-Max Schreck incarnation of Evan Hansen that reviewers have trounced as being mannerist or as stylized or as simply irritating as all get-out—rightfully or wrongfully to their taste, inclination or toleration—is so, so on the money. This is a 137-minute never-ending mental crisis, a sizzling, shorting-out seizure called life: there is nothing wrong and everything absolutely correct about Platt’s performance. Evan Hansen is there in front of you, shy, but not passive, precisely, but definitely swayed by the fates washing up and down his form, flummoxed, a lummox, trying so hard. And there is nothing you can do to help, I guess, unless you look away or walk out. (Even the students’ signage is cracking up, such as for the “STUDENT ENVIROMENTAL [sic] ALLIANCE.”)
It takes the patience of a saint to deal with those in your life who live a lasting, unceasing breakdown. Some of Julianne Moore’s radiant, eyes-to-God performance as a small flickering flame called Carol in Todd Haynes’ brutal, brutalizing “Safe” (1995) plays within her small-voice moments as the working-class mother who hopes to sustain her wide-eyed, increasingly wild-eyed child.
Center of the frame, center of the world, his world, the only world, Evan must let the panoply of symptoms and affects and a demanding world, our modern world, his world, our world, just the world, tear him to terrified shreds. (Dude is melting. Melting down. It’s his only state.) The story of “Dear Evan Hansen” could have been erected as a different story, a different mistaken text, eddying from the wake of some other teen suicide. But it is what it is, largely from a consciousness terrified at the first blink from dark to light in first-fright awareness of what’s beyond the scrim of eyelid.
But the armature of plotting of “Dear Evan Hansen” doesn’t show this, make no mistake: it indicates it, there to be taken in whatever way you might, and through the torrent of Platt’s performance, embodies an iconically fidgety state of consciousness. I am reading into the majestically tremulous mass of mess that Platt plays. Jesus Christ: let us not speak of the particulars of musical suicidal ideation.
Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” and to lesser extent, his Netflix assay, “Bo Burnham: Inside” captures similar jangle and wrangles it right back. These feelings are intolerable. These movies dare to be unbearable.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is in theaters.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.