Everyone complaining that Ben Platt is too old for "Dear Evan Hansen" is missing what's really wrong, which is that the movie wouldn't work no matter who starred in it.
Platt's stage performance was incredibly moving (I saw it Off-Broadway, before it transferred to Broadway) and he repeats it here as a high schooler with severe anxiety and depression whose therapist told him to write affirming letters to himself. One letter ends up in the hands of a troubled classmate who dies and everyone thinks the classmate wrote the inspiring letter to Evan. But the title character goes along with the charade, never dreaming the letter will become a viral affirmation for people who feel different or that it will launch an uneasy relationship with the dead boy's parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) and sister (Kaitlyn Dever).
Much has been made of the lies Evan tells to continue the charade — including to his loving, overworked mom (Julianne Moore) — and whether his social challenges make them explicable. If that seems like something that will bother you, you'll hate the movie. Basically, you have to accept that Evan plays along because he believes he's helping — an idea the movie fills in better than the stage show.
The insurmountable problem, though, is that "Evan" doesn't work on film.
It wants to say something about real issues in the context of a surreal format (musical theater). That worked fine in the metaphoric space of the stage, but not on film, where we have major issues: The person standing next to Evan when he's belting out a show tune sometimes notices and sometimes doesn't. Why? During songs, the other actors must pick an expression to plaster on their faces for long periods, like people forced into uncomfortable close-ups just before "The Young and the Restless" cuts to commercials. And why are average suburban folks having musical epiphanies while they load the dishwasher?
"Evan" lives in an awkward space between something sort of like life and something more like production numbers. Platt's appearance adds to that — he's 10 years older than Evan, who's 17. But I think there's a compelling reason to cast him, anyway, because his meek, tentative characterization is so effective. Although there's too much Viola Davis-level snot-crying, the actor helps us empathize with a character who could come off like Mental Health Pinocchio.
Director Stephen Chbosky ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower") latches onto the idea expressed by Evan's classmate that "there are a lot of people who feel like us." He keeps our attention on feelings that the grieving characters aren't sure what to do with and he does great work with the actors, especially Dever and Moore.
However, he's unsure what to do with the songs, often cramming them into conversations (opener "Waving Through a Window" is chopped into pieces). That tactic can work — "You Will Be Found," which shows Evan's message going viral, smartly checks in with people around the world — but it robs songs of their pizazz. Chbosky seems almost embarrassed by the music, which is a weird attitude for a guy making a musical.
"Evan" falters because Chbosky insists the songs are no big deal, when the thing about musicals is that we want to notice the songs. We want to connect to people like Evan, who are expressing things we haven't figured out how to say. We want to thrill to moments that are bigger than words.
"Dear Evan Hansen"
** out of four stars
Rated: PG-13 for language and themes.
Where: Only in theaters.