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'Dear Evan Hansen' review: A far from letter perfect transfer from Broadway

Ben Platt, left, repeats his Tony Award-winning role

Ben Platt, left, repeats his Tony Award-winning role in the film "Dear Evan Hansen" co-starring Nik Dodani. Credit: AP/Erika Doss

PLOT Following a tragedy, a shy high-schooler becomes a center of attention.

CAST Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore

RATED PG-13 (mature themes and some sexual humor)

LENGTH 2:17

WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE The musical numbers lack oomph, but at the film's heart lies a compelling story of a teen in turmoil.

Tears and songs pour from the screen in "Dear Evan Hansen," an adaptation of 2016’s emo-goes-to-Broadway smash. Its story, about a misfit teenager who lies his way into the hearts of a grieving family, will speak to anyone who has struggled with depression, alienation or loneliness. A dubious bit of casting and less-than-riveting musical numbers, however, detract from the movie’s power.

Ben Platt reprises his Tony Award-winning role as Evan Hansen, a socially awkward kid raised by a doting but harried single mom (an excellent Julianne Moore). As part of a therapy program, Evan writes confessional letters to himself — hence the film’s title — one of which falls into the hands of another, angrier outcast, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan, brief but arresting). After Connor unexpectedly kills himself, his mother (Amy Adams) finds the letter and assumes that Evan was a dear friend.

From here, "Dear Evan Hansen" feels like a gushier version of "Six Degrees of Separation" as Evan begins telling the Murphys what they want to hear about their son. Evan's lies ingratiate him into their wealthy household and, more important, help him win the affection of Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). Evan also becomes amazingly popular at school and makes an unlikely friend in Alana, a pretty but troubled cheerleader played by Amandla Stenberg, who co-wrote and performs a new song, "The Anonymous Ones."

Director Stephen Chbosky, of the dark coming-of-age drama "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," is on familiar ground with this material but he doesn’t seem interested in the kind of inventive visuals and choreography that make a musical a musical. As a result, the songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul ("La La Land") feel static; they slow down the story and even begin to feel unnecessary. "So Big, So Small," for example, a song of motherly reassurance, could have gotten its point across equally well as a short monologue.

There’s also the problem of Platt, a 27-year-old actor playing a high schooler. His 24-year-old co-star Dever does it convincingly enough, but Platt — for reasons hard to put a finger on — does not. It isn’t just the five o’clock shadow visible beneath his makeup, it’s his overly childlike presentation: the little-boy posture, the mop of hair, the stripey T-shirts. It’s as if Platt aimed for adolescence, but overcorrected and hit prepubescence.

Platt deserves credit, however, for giving this performance his all. By the end of the film, he looks positively wrung out with emotion, though "Dear Evan Hansen" may not leave viewers in a similar state.

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