The fashions might change through the decades, and the kind of tunes students listen to tend to switch gears over the years, but high school hallways have always been filled with teens looking to belong. To have peers say, “You're OK, and you matter.” That quest for acceptance, part of a larger journey of self-discovery, is chock full of pitfalls and bumps on the road. Some are more adept, or at least better equipped to handle the obstacles than others, but the struggle is constant. It travels from one generation to the next, with each graduating class hoping the one coming after them has it just a little easier.
Music has long been an important part of these formative years, and I think it's one of the reasons so many musicals are set during this period. Think of “Grease,” with twentysomethings John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John trying to pass off as teenagers, or in more recent years, how Kenny Ortega turned a modest Disney Channel movie into the “High School Musical” franchise, in the process launching the careers of Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. Even Stephen King's “Carrie” took an ill-fated plunge from the page (and Brian De Palma's gaze) to the London and New York stages back in 1988.
This past September brought film adaptations of two acclaimed stage musicals to the screen, and they show that not all texts were meant to make the journey from stage to screen, running the gamut as they do from winsome to abysmal. Call them the “It Gets Better” double feature.
“Dear Evan Hansen”: Remember that time when you were totally unprepared to give an oral report in class, so you tried to wing it in the hopes no one would notice? (Teachers totally notice.) To suffer through the stillborn celluloid rendering of this Tony and Grammy-winning smash is not unlike witnessing a classmate stumble their way through a speech about subject matter they don't fully understand. Only in this case, the subjects are clinical depression and teen suicide, and the level of insight approximates one of those “hang in there” posters. You watch in horror as a succession of tone deaf creative decisions sink this fiasco deeper and deeper into a quicksand of its own making.
Like its source material, the film version of “Dear Evan Hansen” stars Ben Platt, only that can't possibly be right, since it was already a stretch to buy the star of “Pitch Perfect” (where he played a college freshman) as a high schooler back when the stage musical debuted in 2015. But no, your mind is not playing tricks. Behold Mr. Platt, who was 26 at the time cameras rolled, only he looks even older. Closer to 30. His face is puffy. There's suspension of disbelief, and then there's the concept of casting Platt as a high school senior. Who is also, um, a lovelorn straight dude. All righty, then.
You're probably familiar with the details of the plot, but here it goes for the uninitiated. The title character, his arm in a cast no one will sign, suffers from crippling social anxiety, so his therapist recommends that he write letters addressed to himself about things that make him happy. It might be hard for Evan to articulate, but fellow student Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) is the one person who clears the dark clouds for him. Waiting for a printout of one of these chipper missives, sullen damaged goods Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), who happens to be Zoe's brother, snatches the piece of paper. A misunderstanding ensues, and a pissed off Connor skulks away, letter in tow.
Hallway bullying, unrequited yearning and teenagers sending the wrong signals. Has “Dear Evan Hansen” been turned into a rom-com? Not even close, but what might have come across as solemn and nuanced on the stage feels like the setup for the kind of comedy of errors you might find in your Netflix queue.
And that's before director Stephen Chbosky, working from a screenplay by Steven Levenson and Justin Paul, set off an atom bomb. Connor might be a standoffish jerk, but he's also Troubled with a capital “t.” Not long after the letter mix-up, Evan is called into the principal's office, only to find Connor's mom Cynthia (Amy Adams) and stepdad Larry (Miami's own Daniel Pino) staring at him strangely. Connor, you see, took his own life in a way that remains unexplained. He had Evan's letter in his possession, leading the wealthy couple to think the two boys were actually friends.
Evan, naturally, attempts to babble out the truth about the whole thing, but Cynthia won't hear of it. The possibility that her son had an actual friend offers her solace in her time of grieving. So Evan, who sees in this well-to-do, albeit deeply dysfunctional household the stability he lacks with his caring but frequently absent mom Heidi (Julianne Moore), goes along with the charade. He does so reluctantly at first, but once an initially skeptical Zoe begins to open up, he finds it impossible to turn back.
Only the act can't last forever. We know it. The filmmakers know it. So why do they forge ahead as if they were turning a John Hughes movie into a musical? What ensues is a train wreck in slow motion, as the sobering subject matter keeps butting heads with story beats right out of a young adult novel. Characters regularly break out into song, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, but Chbosky is unable to make the musical interludes feel of a piece with the rest of the film's fabric, possibly because there isn't much of an attempt to reconfigure the music so it finds its own life as a piece of cinema. Despite the copious attempts to open up the material, it all feels underimagined, as walled in as its insecure leading man.
Chbosky knows this territory deep in his bones. His sophomore effort behind the camera was the adaptation of his novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Not everything worked there, but at least that story, about a trio of dysfunctional teens creating a makeshift family, felt like it breathed on its own as a movie. Achieving the same with “Dear Evan Hansen,” on the other hand, is something that remains out of his grasp.
A tense exchange between Heidi and Cynthia over Evan's future is one of the only moments that truly get under the skin, because it explores the class divide in a way the rest of the movie shows no interest in pursuing. But Moore's character is too often tossed to the side, and when the Oscar winner shows off her musical chops, the results alternate between the heartfelt and the cringe-inducing. Dever, meanwhile, has a handful of good scenes before she's sucked into the void that leeches anything resembling plausibility from the screen.
What we're left with is a hollow shell, a body snatcher that might resemble the show you probably paid too much to see live but nevertheless lacks its own distinctive personality. A viscous goo of treacly self-help sentiment festers where a soul ought to be, its attempt at catharsis undercut by emotional constipation. Chbosky has crafted the most unsavory kind of movie therapy, one that aims to rope you into a vicious cycle of codependency but offers precious little in return. Unfriend and block.
“Everybody's Talking About Jamie”: Whereas “Dear Evan Hansen” strives for subdued realism but never rings true, this amiable adaptation of the West End musical, itself inspired by a British TV documentary, embraces the theatricality of its source material, then adds some bright colors and widescreen flourishes. What emerges is a splashy paean to individuality that urges you to follow your dreams and trust your gut, especially when what your elders say feels all kinds of wrong. It plays a familiar tune, but you'd have to be made out of stone not to give a damn.
Set in director Jonathan Butterell's hometown of Sheffield, the film follows Jamie New (newcomer Max Harwood), who lives with his divorced mom, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) in a modest part of town. His burning desire? To become a drag queen. His mom approves, even if it means shielding her son from his indifferent dad (“The Green Knight's” Ralph Ineson). Margaret even gives her son some heels that would make Divine green with envy. Jamie, who has showbiz aspirations but still has a paper route to take care of, is full of sass and assertiveness in the classroom, where he fends off taunts from class bully Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley).
Their teacher, Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), encourages her students to keep their career expectations in check. Poppycock, Jamie thinks to himself. He knows he's destined to be a star. His best friend, Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel), takes a minute to warm up to the idea, then, as genuine friends are inclined to do, is fully on board.
But what Jamie desperately needs is guidance to reach his moment in the limelight. Enter store owner Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant), who sees in the wide-eyed whippersnapper a reflection of himself at his age. It doesn't take long for the bitter façade to drop. He may no longer wear the dresses or the high heels, but Hugo is still a drag queen with a heart of gold and, fortunately, eager to step in as Jamie's fairy godmother in this Cinderella story.
Butterell, who developed the stage musical alongside screenwriter Tom MacRae, makes a solid directing debut here. While some of his staging can charitably be described as basic, his enthusiasm for the characters rarely steers him wrong, and unlike “Dear Evan Hansen,” he knows some people (like Jamie's dad) are unwilling to change.
The soundtrack is full of verve, but aside from the title track, it could have been more memorable. Perhaps the film's biggest misstep is turning Miss Hedge from evenhanded instructor to misguided stumbling block. The climactic showdown, pitting the students against her as to whether or not to allow Jamie to attend the prom in drag, forces the teacher to adopt a prejudiced stand that feels like it came out of nowhere. She's less a full-fledged character than a plot device.
But even with the faux pas, much of “Everybody's Talking About Jamie” plays precisely like the movie that Netflix's star-studded adaptation of “The Prom” should have been. What elevates the movie is Grant. As a grande dame passing on wisdom and on-stage pointers, the actor is clearly having a ball, and the feeling is infectious. He deftly slides from humor to pathos and back again. In the film's most moving sequence, home movies show Hugo grappling with loss during the AIDS epidemic. It adds a touching dimension to this coming-of-age story, as poignant a love letter to Sheffield as Todd Stephens' “Swan Song” is to Sandusky, Ohio.
There's a joyous bounce to “Jamie,” bust also a wistful undertow. The driving force here, other than the protagonist's indefatigable quest for self-expression, is nostalgia, a yearning for a queer culture that's fading. The movie represents the mainstreaming of this culture, a gentrification of what once was considered edgy and marginal. It feels like a natural progression. Wrapped up into such a shiny, irresistible package, who am I to take issue?
“Dear Evan Hansen” continues in wide release, including Regal Cinemas South Beach, the Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami, The Landmark at Merrick Park in Coral Gables and the Gateway Cinema in Fort Lauderdale. “Everybody's Talking About Jamie” had a one-week theatrical run at The Landmark and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime. (Critic's Note: "Jamie" is definitely what you want to go for instead of that dreadful “Cinderella” jukebox musical starring Camila Cabello and Idina Menzel. [I take the bullets so you don't have to.])