‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Kicks Off Toronto Film Festival With High Emotions Thanks to In-Person Return

Dear Evan Hansen
Courtesy of Erika Doss/Universal

The Toronto International Film Festival marked a poignant in-person return on Thursday evening, with the opening night title “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Before a single frame of the cathartic tearjerker starring Ben Platt was screened, festival co-heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente primed the room at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. Normally packed to the gills in pre-COVID times, the auditorium was a barely at 50% capacity thanks to social distancing measures in view of the ongoing pandemic.

Bailey and Vicente spoke of resilience and gratitude for the industry and public coming back together at TIFF. An officer of the Canadian film commission followed, underscoring that “Dear Evan Hansen” was the perfect film to welcome audiences back after an all-virtual edition in 2020 because of its simple message: “You are not alone.”

Mayor of Toronto John Tory then surprised the crowd with an off-the-cuff speech, at one point nearly overcome, saying “This is the greatest city in the greatest country in the world, and we’re stronger than ever.”

So, yeah, the room was ready to laugh and cry beside each other in the dark.

Platt introduced the film with supporting cast Amandla Stenberg, Julianne Moore, Danny Pino, Colton Ryan and Nik Dodani. Director Stephen Chbosky, standing beside musical scribe and adaptive screenplay writer Steven Levenson, said “as far is I’m concerned, you’re here for the opening night of cinema in North America.” Stars Amy Adams and Kaitlyn Dever appeared via Zoom.

A Tony-winning musical, Universal’s “Dear Evan Hansen” follows a lonely and troubled teen who is catapulted into the lives of a grieving family after a mix up over the authorship of a letter. As he gains the trust and affection of his new admirers, a chasm around his lie grows larger as connections from his old life erode.

Audience members liberally embraced each other and wiped at their eyes during dramatic numbers, and shared glances and laughs as well. The reaction could well have been an advertisement for the moviegoing experience in general. After credits rolled and the cast and filmmakers took to the stage for a Q&A, Platt received a standing ovation.

“He’s become so wrapped up in who I am,” Platt said of the titular role.

Moore confessed that she had not sung aloud “since I did ‘The Music Man’ in high school,” but found strength playing opposite “this beautiful performance from Ben.”

Chbosky perhaps summed it up best when he was asked why he gravitates toward stories about coming of age (as he has in previous work like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Wonder.”)

“Whatever tragedies we may have experienced In our families over the last year, we are alive. We are here. The movie rocks,” he said.

This is Chbosky’s first time tackling a musical, though he has adapted screenplays for the filmed version of “Rent” and the Disney live action version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, billed professionally as Pasek and Paul, wrote the music and lyrics.

In an interview with Variety published Thursday, Chbosky detailed his determination that the movie’s singing feel live and urgent.

“To me, live singing was a cornerstone of this particular movie. I had an instinct that the more matter of fact we could be about the music, the more the dialogue and lyrics are almost indistinguishable in how we approach them, that the tone would be more grounded and real. We’re dealing with real grief, real emotions; there really isn’t any fantasy,” he said.