It’s easy to see why the Toronto International Film Festival opted to kick off its 46th edition with the world premiere of Dear Evan Hansen. After all, what better choice to reflect the collective post-lockdown zeitgeist than the movie version of the smash Broadway musical about forging human connections in a world of loneliness and uncertainty?
Less clear is the extent to which fans will embrace an adaptation which, however heartfelt, often falls short of the intended, emotionally uplifting mark.
Dear Evan Hansen
Strikes a universal, if wavering, chord.
Filmed last summer in the heat of the pandemic under the direction of Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), with Ben Platt reprising his affecting, Tony Award-winning lead role, the production boasts its share of tenderly crafted moments.
But in the story’s transition from a two-act to a three-act proposition, Platt’s Hansen isn’t the only one who at times feels on the outside looking in, as the dictates of opening up the intimate settings too often result in numbers that incorporate distancing cutaways and music video clichés that water down their potency.
A weakness for the formulaic, combined with a noticeably weighty running time, continually bumps up against the film’s many fine points, provided by the supporting ensemble, including Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Colton Ryan, Julianne Moore and Amy Adams.
Having shed some pounds and grown out his hair (setting tongues a-wagging when the trailer was first dropped), 27-year-old Platt convincingly conjures up his teen geek self as the highly introverted, overly medicated Hansen, a high school senior whose habitually sweaty palms keep him well distanced from the cool kids.
He’s nevertheless reluctantly thrust into the spotlight when one of the therapeutic motivational letters he has written to himself shows up in the possession of sociopathic schoolmate Connor Murphy (Ryan), who has taken his own life. Believing Evan to be her son’s only connection, Connor’s mother (Adams) invites him into their home, prompting Hansen to fabricate a nonexistent friendship between them which inevitably spirals out of control.
Along the way, Evan bonds with both Connor’s sister, Zoe (Dever), and the school’s resident activist, Alana (Stenberg) and finds himself doing a little less “waving through a window” in the process.
On the subject of songs from the stage version, four of them didn’t make it into the movie, including the original opener, “Anybody Have a Map.” In their place are a pair of new Benj Pasek-Justin Paul numbers, including the aching “The Anonymous Ones,” performed by Stenberg.
They fit well into the Hansen tapestry, as do, for the most part, the shifts from the straight dramatic scenes (provided by Steven Levenson, based on his book for the stage show) into song, especially Platt’s delicate reading of “You Will Be Found” and Moore’s lovely take on “So Big/So Small,” two tunes wisely left unencumbered by visual embellishments.
The absence of a more cohesive unifying tone is noticeable in director Chbosky’s nonmusical renderings, which also occasionally struggle to find an agreeable balance between the theatrical and the melodramatic.
Despite the pesky distractions, Platt and company still manage to deliver the right message at precisely the right time.