The 46th annual Toronto International Film Festival began two days ago, and as with just about every other aspect of life in the here and now, it feels confusingly caught between two realities: the new normal of COVID, and the old normal of before COVID. Last year, things were… simpler would be the wrong word for a time of so much misery and death and uncertainty, so let’s say more clear cut instead. North America’s biggest and most prominent film festival largely migrated online: While there was an in-person component for locals, closed borders assured that this international event couldn’t welcome an international audience. Subsequently, a lot of the world (including all American press) experienced TIFF from laptops, watching the lineup via a surprisingly navigable and convenient streaming platform. It took the festival out of the festival experience, but the show did go on.
One year later, things are different. Borders are open again, and some of the global population is now vaccinated. In response to these developments, TIFF has taken a “hybrid” approach to its annual cinema summit, offering standard screenings in movie theaters across the city while also reviving the virtual system for those still not ready to travel or pack into an auditorium with a bunch of strangers. On paper, it makes sense: Between the access to vaccines and the rapid spread of the Delta variant, we’re at a moment right now where everyone is feeling out their individual comfort level, deciding for themselves exactly how much risk is too much. Providing the option to do Toronto both in person and from afar was a smart move on the fest’s part—an acknowledgment of where we’re at as a global community.
Make no mistake, however: This year, web-only TIFF is even more of a shadow of the IRL version—in large part because the festival has restricted access to some of its most prominent selections. Look, it was always a long shot that Warner Bros. was going to make Dune available to stream on tiny screens before it made its way to big ones. But it was still a bit of a shock to see just how many films wouldn’t be on the virtual menu. This appears to be the cost of luring bigger movies than last year’s crop: Perhaps out of fear of piracy or eating into the box office, major studios, their mini-major subsidiaries, and hotshot indie players like Neon have largely insisted that TIFF only play their titles in a theater proper. Which means that anyone covering the festival from outside the festival is at a distinct disadvantage.
That’s the boat The A.V. Club finds itself in. And we’d be less inclined to grumble if the messaging coming out of the fest had been clearer; after weeks of organizers stopping just short of flat-out telling American journalists not to come (in part because press and industry screenings would supposedly be very limited), it felt like buying a bill of goods, this discovery of how many high-profile films—a.k.a. the ones readers might be dying to hear about—won’t be available to virtual correspondents. (For word on some of those, including Dune, the Kristen Stewart Princess Diana biopic Spencer, and Edgar Wright’s genre-bending Last Night In Soho, check out Leila Latif’s coverage from Venice, the only major international festival that’s remained steadfast in neither cancelling outright nor offering an online option.)
Still, as we always note, TIFF isn’t only about the huge awards-season fodder that it reliably launches every September. Its enormous lineup tends to span the full spectrum of modern cinema, offering disreputable midnight fare, bona fide experimental movies, and everything in between. Over the next week, Katie Rife and I will be reporting back on all we can see—and, hopefully, making a few discoveries that balm the burn of being denied an early look at, say, the new Asghar Farhadi or this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, a reportedly bonkers erotic car thriller from the director of Raw.
Also, credit where it’s due: Universal did offer an only slightly belated peek at Toronto’s opening night selection—and did so still even after waves of derisive reviews came rolling in. From the moment its first trailer premiered, Dear Evan Hansen was preemptively enshrined this year’s Cats: an adaptation of a hit Broadway show whose apparent, glaring miscalculation makes it a sight-unseen laughing stock. In this case, the tittering disbelief has centered on the casting of the nearly 27-year-old Ben Platt, who won a Tony for originating the lead/title role, as a high school senior.
Platt was technically too old for the role when he played it on stage, too. There, the inherent theatricality of the experience probably made it easier to suspend one’s disbelief. Movies, it should be remembered, used to pull this kind of age-inappropriate casting all the time; just two decades ago, Tobey Maguire was the same age as Platt is now when he played a teenage Peter Parker in Spider-Man—a decision almost no one balked at. But our acceptance of this historic affront to realism (which, of course, does go back to the stage—how often is it really a kid up there as Hamlet?) has waned in recent years, as Hollywood has increasingly cast real teenagers as teenage characters.
You can’t really view Dear Evan Hansen through the lens of a bygone era’s more lax standards of age-related naturalism. Watching the film last night, I instead found myself straining to apply a more radical justification, to reason that Platt’s casting could work as a distancing device. Evan is a high-school outcast who feels alienated from his peers because of his depression and social anxiety. Could making him look radically different than them function in a Brechtian way, as a deliberate representation of how different he feels?
Nah! It is, as everyone speculated, enormously and constantly distracting to see this grown-ass man with a visibly receding hairline act like an awkward adolescent. (Not to be unkind, but Platt does not possess the ageless boyishness he’s blatantly struggling to convey.) The disconcerting Hans-Moleman-as-Bart wrongness of his presence underscores the movie’s larger failure to reconcile realism and the fantasy intrusions of musical theater. There really aren’t that many songs in this 137-minute musical, which makes each one’s arrival rather jarring. That could work, in a Dancer In The Dark kind of way: a serious, thoughtful teen drama periodically interrupted by explosions of feeling the characters can only express through song. But director Stephen Chbosky, who wrote The Perks Of Being A Wallflower and helmed its adaptation (an infinitely more resonant portrait of teenage life and longing), stages the numbers in the same banal, sitting-at-the-table way as the standard dialogue scenes.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that no version of this material as written could walk the tricky tonal tightrope it lays out for itself. The plot, for those who don’t know, pivots around a contrived situation in which a letter Evan writes to himself falls into the hands of a classmate (Colton Ryan) who takes his own life, leading the boy’s parents to mistake it for their son’s suicide letter and Evan for a close friend, when in reality the two barely knew each other. Again, there’s potential in that premise… which we know because it resembles that of the more provocative and moving Robin Williams comedy World’s Greatest Dad. But Dear Evan Hansen soft-pedals Evan’s murky motives, failing to ever totally confront the extent to which he lets this misunderstanding continue out of a desire to get close to the deceased’s sister (Kaitlyn Dever) and see a rise in his social stock. The songs, unmemorable in their clumsily conversational delivery and invariably quavering emotion, never dip too deeply into Evan’s guilt, fear of exposure, and overwhelmed need to keep a lie of omission going because he’s in too deep. Nor does the show musically reckon with how the borderline kitsch of its big “We Are The World” number—an inspirational group singalong in which Evan’s public “grief” inspires a viral anti-suicide movement—grows out of pure bullshit he fabricates for a school assembly.
So maybe the stage version is a mess, too. Either way, and with apologies to the film’s star (who may truly have killed it in that context), Platt does seem like the biggest problem here—and not just because he can’t credibly look like someone who’d get carded at the bar. The justification for casting him was basically the Hamilton-on-Disney-Plus defense, that more people needed to see this remarkable performance. But acting for film and acting for the stage are two very different disciplines, and you can’t just airdrop an approach devised for one medium into the other. Platt, possibly gripped by muscle memory, always seems to be doing the show that won him accolades—playing his emotions to the balcony seats with every facial expression, singing the songs the way he’s always sung them. But that approach clashes dramatically with the film’s other performances, which range from miraculously well-measured, like Dever’s, to very lost-looking (Amy Adams doesn’t seem sure of how to play the emotions of this situation). In the end, Dear Evan Hansen is a reminder that not all stories should be musicals, and that not all musicals should be movies. Let’s hope TIFF saved the worst for first, and that brighter horizons await.