This review of “Dear Evan Hansen” was first published after the film’s September 9, 2021, premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
Is there something about getting through 2020 and the first eight months of 2021 that makes people want to sing and dance? You’d think so from the movies, which this year will include Steven Spielberg’s new version of “West Side Story,” Leos Carax’s wacko Sparks musical “Annette,” Christopher Ashley’s version of “Come From Away,” Jon Chu’s version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” Miranda’s version of Jonathan Larson’s “tick, tick … BOOM!” and Stephen Chbosky’s “Dear Evan Hansen,” which opened the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
“We felt it was important to open the festival with a film that connects us to our shared humanity,” TIFF executive director and co-head Joanna Vicente said when she and artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey introduced the film for its first screening at the Princess of Wales Theatre on September 9. And if there was ever a film designed to celebrate community as it begins to come together after a year of virtual festivals and Zoom meetings, it’s the one whose Act 1 finale, “You Will Be Found,” included the repeated line, “You are not alone.”
The theater wasn’t filled for the premiere; TIFF is still observing social distancing, which means that in addition to requiring proof of vaccination to enter, it left lots of empty seats between filmgoers. But the mood was celebratory, thanks partly to opening-night fervor after 2020’s largely virtual TIFF, and partly to the great number of Ben Platt fanatics who made themselves heard when he took the stage with other cast members before the screening.
Sure, Platt is 27, which makes him a little old to be playing a high-schooler in the role he was involved with since the show’s first reading in 2014, when he was 20. But in a show where everybody’s running around breaking into song in order to have a deep conversation, there’s not much sense in demanding verisimilitude when it comes to actors looking like high schoolers.
And really, here’s the bottom line: If you have a heart and any kind of tolerance for musicals, at some point you will surrender to “Dear Evan Hansen,” to Ben Platt and to a sterling cast of actors who were not in the original Broadway musical. It’s messy at times and melodramatic at others, and its treatment of mental health issues is not the most nuanced, but those feel like quibbles given the joy you can find in its best moments.
Chbosky proved to be an adept chronicler of teen-outsider angst in his 1999 novel and 2012 film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” so he came to the assignment not as a virtuoso director of musical theater, but as a guy who understands the feeling of not fitting in and not being seen. His take on “Dear Evan Hansen” does some streamlining with the Broadway musical, cutting a handful of songs (most notably the opener, “Anybody Have a Map”), adding two new songs and, for a stretch in the early going, seeming more like a teen drama than a musical.
That’s because after the song “Waving Through a Window,” which was moved from the second song in the show to the first one in the movie, he sinks into the story and puts the music aside for a while. We meet Evan Hansen, painfully insecure and prone to depression, struggling through the first day of his senior year armed with a letter written at his therapist’s insistence, in which he tells himself everything will be all right. A sullen classmate, Connor Murphy, steals the letter, and it’s found in his pocket when he commits suicide. Everybody thinks Connor has written it to his friend Evan, and bumbling Evan finds it easier to go along with the fiction to help the grieving family (Amy Adams and Danny Pino as the parents, Kaitlyn Dever as the sister on whom Evan has a crush).
You can figure out where it’s going from there whether or not you’ve seen the stage version, but there are lots of pleasures to be found along the way. Platt owns the role, of course, but the nice surprise is how the actors who are not from the musical-theater world hold their own. Amandla Stenberg has a new song, “The Anonymous Ones,” that encapsulates some of the themes of the film; she co-wrote it with original songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and it serves as a worthy setup for the Act 1 showstopper “You Will Be Found,” which is over-the-top in a way that’s almost impossible to resist.
And Kaitlyn Dever, who has been creating indelible troubled teens since before “Short Term 12” without hitting any false notes along the way, is as good as expected in the dramatic scenes and surprisingly effective in the songs; her duet with Platt, “Only Us,” is genuinely affecting, and her performance a marvel of understatement.
Even with actors like Adams and Julianne Moore along to add gravitas, you wouldn’t call “Dear Evan Hansen” understated for most of its running time; it’s a musical, after all, where people who are tongue-tied when they try to speak can burst into song and become as eloquent as they are melodic. But even if you go in with reservations, even if you don’t succumb to its most extravagant moments, it sneaks up on you. Go ahead, smile or ache or shed a tear – you are not alone.
“Dear Evan Hansen” opens in U.S. theaters September 24.