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The last time Toronto saw Dear Evan Hansen, the beloved Broadway musical was slinking out of town after an abbreviated, money-losing run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. On Thursday night, it was back, this time in the form of a feature film adaptation by director Stephen Chbosky that opened this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The gala world premiere was held at Roy Thomson Hall – right across the street from the Royal Alex.

If Dear Evan Hansen was back, so is TIFF. Take it from Ontario’s Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Minister Lisa MacLeod, one of the evening’s pre-screening speechmakers. “We’re back!” she called out.

TIFF 2021: Read our reviews of films playing at the festival

Toronto Mayor John Tory followed with remarks about the COVID-19 pandemic and being able to see films together, whether at the 46th TIFF this year or the 146th edition a century down the road. “Which I won’t be around for,” he added.

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The Mayor had just announced his retirement plans. You heard it here first.

As in 2020, this year’s TIFF (which runs to Sept. 18) is a hybrid affair, with digital screenings and limited-seating in-person presentations. Unlike 2020, this year’s festival features more glitz, more international talent appearances, more international press and more indoor screenings at more venues, with a boost in crowd-size capacities in the theatres. At Roy Thomson Hall, the venue was half-full, in accordance with Ontario’s Stage 3 regulations.

The red carpet for Dear Evan Hansen was hidden by blinders and protected with fencing, so as to discourage gawkers from congregating. The public couldn’t take selfies with actors Ben Platt, Julianne Moore and other cast members. If a festival falls in a forest, will anybody hear?

The film stars Platt, who reprises the Tony Award-winning role he originated on Broadway. His character is a lonely, anxiety-ridden high schooler who becomes involved with a family who just lost their teenaged son to suicide. It’s a story about grief, compassion and a sense of belonging. Melodious and melancholic (often at the same time), Dear Evan Hansen is unapologetically sentimental and a roller-coaster of emotions.

The gala presentation included a post-screening Q&A moderated by TIFF co-head Cameron Bailey, with the cast, Chbosky and screenplay writer Steven Levenson on hand. Afterward, I heard from John Karastamatis, the director of sales and marketing for Mirvish Productions, the Toronto theatre producers who mounted the stage musical Dear Evan Hanson here in 2019. There were three screenings of the film on Thursday; he had caught the one at the Mirvish-owned Princess of Wales Theatre.

He said he enjoyed the movie, but more than that, he liked that there were no long lines, no guests of sponsors taking up all the prime seats and no fancy clothing.

“It reminded me of the festival’s early years, where the vibe was low key and casual,” Karastamatis said. “I was 15 when the festival began and I skipped school for two weeks to attend. The focus back then was on the films and nothing else.”

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TIFF really is back, then.

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