It makes perfect sense why Dear Evan Hansen was selected to open the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, on paper. It is the big-screen adaptation of the massively popular Tony-winning musical of the same name, and is a super emotional crowd-pleaser. Plus, with the star power of Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, and Amandla Stenberg joining the original Evan Hansen, Ben Platt, in the mix, it makes for an ode to community in the face of loneliness at the perfect time, as we all tiptoe back into theatres. And it’s a great star-packed first red carpet premiere for TIFF, the first with in-person interviews since 2019.
Yes, it was met with a standing ovation, and the loudest cheers for Ben. But since the release of the trailer back in May, the movie has taken on a new life as a meme target for Ben’s real-life age (27) and how he’s playing a 17-year-old. Of course, this is far from a new story in Hollywood - we all remember Andrea Zuckerman on Beverly Hills 90210, or Stockard Channing playing Rizzo in Grease at 33 or 34 - but there is a renewed interest in mocking this casting practice when it comes to Dear Evan Hansen.
Having seen the film a few weeks ago for junket press, there is no better person to play this role on film than Ben Platt, age and all. But some critics online have their knives out for the film, and are using it as a punchline, while others are picking on its portrayal of mental health. That stayed consistent with the film’s premiere last night, some critics hated it. Writing for Deadline, Valerie Complex called it an “irreparably problematic piece of work that manipulates the audience by forcing them to feel sympathy for a pathological liar whose own mental illness is exploited.” Others, like Steve Pond, wrote that it “sneaks up on you” in an “over-the-top” way that is “impossible to resist.” And clearly, the crowd loved it too.
And then there’s this tweet from Rotten Tomatoes editor Jacqueline Coley:
With a split amongst critics, and with the warm audience reception, it will be interesting to watch the film’s trajectory as the press tour continues. It reminds me of the disconnect between critics of The Greatest Showman (on being a one-dimensional portrait of PT Barnum, for example) and its devoted fan following, and sleeper hit success. The two musicals also have the songwriting team of Pasek & Paul in common. But are both movies still very, very, very, watchable, with amazing soundtracks? Absolutely.
However, backlash has surrounded Dear Evan Hansen for years. Four years ago, I wrote about Ben Platt winning the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, and how he was a “lock” to win in spite of his character’s controversial and possibly “creepy” motivations. In Dear Evan Hansen, he plays a socially anxious high school senior whose white lie following a classmate’s death by suicide (Colton Ryan, in the film) results in his own sudden popularity, and a romance with his crush (Kaitlyn Dever, Booksmart). He soon bonds with his late classmate’s grieving mother (Amy Adams) and stepdad (Danny Pino) as well, and lines quickly blur, in spite of his mother Heidi’s (Julianne Moore) unwavering support and encouragement.
Personally, I was pleasantly surprised by how moved I was by the film. I hated the second act of the musical, but loved the songs. The movie, which is adapted for the screen by the Tony-winning writer of the book Steven Levenson, seemed to course correct slightly by making it less of a story about “redemption” and more about forgiveness and connection. It made me emotional, and gave me goosebumps in a way I totally did not anticipate. The film also wisely expands on Amandla's character Alana quite significantly, and also gives them their own song “The Anonymous Ones” (which they co-wrote for the movie), which provided added value and context outside of Evan's motivations for social acceptance. Plus, Julianne Moore and Amy Adams’ performances anchor the story with so much humanity, it’s hard not to feel the warmth of their love for their on-screen sons. In spite of being overly simplified when it comes to its approach to mental illness and support, it also goes out of its way to normalize therapy, and how we can all be more compassionate and understanding to those struggling with depression and anxiety. Call it cheesy at times, but it is effective.
All of the songs in the film are recorded live, and yes, Julianne Moore sings too, for the first “real” time in a movie musical, after quick song moments in Magnolia and The Big Lebowski.
Prior to the second screening at Roy Thomson Hall, the cast was so happy about being chosen as the opening night entry for the festival. Everybody was very gracious and in great spirits at the premiere yesterday, and they brought the fashion too (Julianne in Celine, Amandla in Gucci, Ben Platt in head-to-toe Louis Vuitton [the lime green soles on his shoes were a very fun touch]). And on the red carpet, Ben Platt told etalk’s Danielle Graham that seeing his work, and this character that means so much to him up on the big screen is a “real privilege.”
“I just feel really, really lucky that I got to finish this journey and be the one to preserve the character that I love so much,” said Ben. “The fact that huge audiences of people get to see the story now feels like an embarrassment of riches.”
With passionate fans and staunch defenders, as well as very vocal critics, this will almost certainly be a movie that keeps us talking over the next few months. The Cannes and Venice Film Festivals may have brought the glamour back to the red carpet, but by selecting Dear Evan Hansen, TIFF has given us a movie to debate over that brings all the feels and fires us up online, for better or for worse.