Julianne Moore led the stars onto the first Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) red carpet in two years on Thursday, as the movie adaptation of Broadway smash hit Dear Evan Hansen finally reopened North America’s biggest movie gathering.
The musical film about a teen battling isolation and loneliness drew audiences back in a city just recently emerging from one of the world’s longest coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdowns, which forced last year’s edition to take place almost entirely online.
“It’s a very big moment – I love this festival,” Moore, who plays the student’s mother in the film, told AFP. “I felt so lucky to be working on something that was so important and so much about the human condition at a time when people were really struggling.”
The movie follows Evan, a teenager with social anxiety whose life is turned upside-down after a classmate kills himself.
It tackles themes of wanting to belong and the might of social media, as he finds himself trapped in a well-meaning but ever-deepening lie concerning the tragedy.
Opening on Broadway in 2016, the multiple Tony Award-winning stage version became arguably New York’s most successful new musical since Hamilton, propelling Ben Platt – who reprises his role on the big screen – to stardom.
“I saw it very early on, right after they opened – Ben opened his mouth and started to sing and I’d never heard anything like it before in my life,” said Moore, who joins a starry cast including Amy Adams and Kaitlyn Dever.
Platt’s casting by studio Universal Pictures raised eyebrows given the 27-year-old plays a high schooler – although such age mismatches have long been a hallmark of Hollywood high-school films such as Grease.
Platt, who played Evan in the musical’s first production in 2015, insists it will be the last time he revisits the character.
“It was a very cathartic experience to say goodbye to each piece of material and each song, one at a time, and know that it will be preserved to hopefully show my children someday,” he told AFP.
While other major film festivals such as Venice and Cannes have appeared almost back to pre-pandemic “normal”, this year’s Toronto edition is a mixture of virtual and real-life screenings with reduced audience capacities.
Stars are thinner on the ground than usual, although the likes of Jessica Chastain, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sigourney Weaver and Dune director Denis Villeneuve are expected to attend.
Organisers were stymied by Canada’s strict border controls, with mandatory quarantine for most foreign visitors only lifted on Tuesday.
“I think we’ve been affected differently,” said festival co-head Joana Vicente, who was not sure live, in-person premieres would be possible as recently as May.
“You’re riding this rollercoaster in terms of ‘what does the situation look like just ahead of us?’” added co-head Cameron Bailey.
Toronto stands out from rivals due to boasting “the biggest, most influential film audience at a festival in the world”, making the return of crowds vital, he said.
The festival, which runs until September 18, is showing dozens of films shot during the pandemic including Dear Evan Hansen – which was the first North American production to start up in the early, pre-vaccine days of last summer.
“It was a terrifying experience – we were always worried about getting sick,” said actor Nik Dodani. “And the isolation – we were in a very strict bubble, we didn’t see anybody ... I thought that was very fitting for the film.”
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