After being completely virtual last year, the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is back with some in-person, star-studded experiences, kicking off with the movie version of the Tony Award–winning musical Dear Evan Hansen, starring Ben Platt.
The plot of the film (and play) tells the story of the lead character Evan Hansen (Platt), a high school student who has a social anxiety disorder. He's advised by his therapist to write motivational letters to himself to highlight the positive things in his life each day. But one of these letters falls into the hands of fellow student Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), with the letter alluding to Evan's crush on Connor's younger sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever).
We then discover that Connor committed suicide but because he still had Evan's note at the time of his death, Connor's parents, played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino, think that the two high schoolers were actually friends, when they barely knew each other. This leads Evan into a web of lies about his relationship with Connor, completely falsifying a friendship that they had.
The premise of the movie puts the audience in an uncomfortable spot at the outset, the concept of a character you feel attached to lying to a family who just lost their son to suicide can be a hard pill to swallow, so to speak, and is more difficult to digest in the movie than in its stage form.
Yes, for anyone who isn't particularly a fan of films where the characters periodically break into song, Dear Evan Hansen does fall into that category, but for fans of the musical, you'll be happy to hear your favourite tunes through the emotional journey.
'People like to have something to say that is negative'
Platt has spent years with the character of Evan and won a Tony award for his performance in the role. Despite the accolade, some have expressed concern that the now 27-year-old is taking on the role of a high schooler, not to mention the fact that the movie is produced by his father Marc Platt.
"People like to have something to say that is negative, regardless of what it is, and so if my thing is something that I can’t control at all, which is my age, then, like, bring it on," the actor said in an interview on The Zach Sang Show earlier this year. "I’m glad it’s not about the performance or my voice or anything that actually matters."
"The reaction is largely from people that don’t understand the context of the piece, the fact that I created the role and workshopped it for three years... And also not really understanding the fact that were I not to do the movie it probably wouldn’t have been made."
Platt has a very important point and especially with such a fan-favourite theatrical production that people fell in love with on stage, there is certainly an expectation that he would be in movie, and he ultimately knows this role better than anyone.
"It was a lot about maintaining the essence of what the performance was on stage, in terms of...Evan's anxiety and his internal struggle, and the ways in which that manifests physically," Platt said in a TIFF Q&A, although is definitely isn't the most subtle actor in the film.
'My singing was news to me'
While the music of Dear Evan Hansen has been incredibly popular, even for people who have never seen the play, Julianne Moore, who takes on the role of Evan's mom, was kind of caught off guard about her character singing in the movie.
"My singing was news to me," she said. "The last time I sang was in high school in The Music Man and it wasn't very demanding."
"This was a tall order and with musical giants so I was excited and challenged and terrified, but also so gratified to have this opportunity."
Moore also called her co-star Platt a "master" of the of musical storytelling showcased in Dear Evan Hansen.
There is also a new song in the mix for the film called "The Anonymous Ones," sang by Amandla Stenberg, who plays an over-achiever student Alana Beck in the movie, which Platt highlights as a song that speaks to a "new group of people" for the film.
"It's representative of a whole new group of people that the film is very specifically speaking to, in terms of the people whose mental health struggles and emotional struggles don't represent in the classic, kind of more obvious way, that perhaps Evans do," Platt said.
'I did revisit a lot of my anxieties and fears'
For actors like Dever and Stenberg, Dear Evan Hansen connected them to the insecurities they particularly felt in high school.
"I did revisit a lot of my anxieties and fears that I had in highs school, and I don't know if those ever really go away," Dever revealed. "It can be really tragic and what Zoe is going though, it's really unthinkable."
Stenberg added that a big part of being a teenager is "fumbling into being a person," concerned about what other people think of you, and that's something she wanted to bring to the character of Alana.
"There definitely was like a revisitation of feelings that I had when I was in high school," Stenberg said. "I remember in high school caring a lot what people thought about me and that being like, almost soul crushing at moments."
'Dear Evan Hansen' reaction
With many people highlighting the mixed reviews of Dear Evan Hansen after the film's TIFF debut, and some still not happy with the age gap between the character of Evan and Platt (which maybe we should just get over), there's no denying that the movie will certainly bring a tears to peoples eyes.
But the movie doesn't quite have the magic that draws you into the stage production, to the point where you want to listen to the songs everyday for the next two weeks. In the movie, it's more difficult to look past the outrageous lies that Evan is telling to a family that just lost their son.
As complex as it is to battle those emotions, Dear Evan Hansen still does bring forward its message about feeling like an outsider, but there are larger issues at play here in terms of executing and realizing this message with care, and a connection to reality. Ultimately, any uneasiness about the general plot is amplified in film version of the story.
Fans of the theatre production will be happy to see Platt take on the role of Evan again and he certainly understands this character thoroughly, but Dever performance, in particular, is arguably more impressive.
If you're looking for the moment of clarity in the movie, effectively tackling issues of anxiety and feeling alone, it's Stenberg and her song "The Anonymous Ones" that you should be looking to, contrary to the emphasis on the protagonist of the film.
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs until Sept. 18 with both in-person and digital screenings of films.