By Lindsey Carroll
When Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen began screening in cinemas in the fall of 2021, I intentionally avoided buying a ticket. This may seem bizarre given my devotion to the source material: I have seen the 2017 winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical twice on Broadway and, admittedly, several more times via bootleg (my sincerest apologies to the Broadway community). The show holds a very special place in my heart, and I automatically knew it would stick with me ever since I first listened to the original Broadway cast recording (OBCR) of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s newest musical back in 2016.
The book of the musical, written by Steven Levenson, focuses on a severely anxious and depressed high schooler who, over the course of the show, comes to terms with his own suicidality in the wake of a classmate’s suicide and ultimately begins to heal his relationship with himself. I was awestruck: this musical addressed with incredible specificity the struggles I found myself experiencing as a sixteen-year-old high school student. I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was thirteen and had been taking medication ever since; however, it wasn’t until the fall of my junior year that I had my first depressive episode. By November 2017, I was weeks away from attempting suicide. I was very lucky to receive psychiatric help that saved my life.
During that particularly dark time of my life, I listened to the OBCR of Dear Evan Hansen constantly. The story of this kid, Evan Hansen, who was just as anxious and depressed as I was, was a source of unquantifiable comfort. I still find it difficult to express the impact of seeing Evan’s character transform from someone who hated himself so much he wanted to die into a person who could genuinely say “today is going to be a good day because today at least you’re you and that’s enough.” Dear Evan Hansen contributed to keeping me alive long enough to receive the help I needed. For that, I will always be grateful.
So, when the film hit theaters in 2021, I was heartbroken when I saw the initial reviews. There was almost universal criticism of the adaptation — the film still holds a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which, if you ask me, is abysmal. I was deeply saddened that the musical that helped save my life hadn’t translated well to the silver screen; I simply couldn’t bring myself to buy a ticket to witness the wreckage of something so important to me.
Nevertheless, I have finally viewed Dear Evan Hansen (2021). And, in the interest of stirring the pot, I must admit it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be. It definitely had a plethora of issues, but it wasn’t terrible. In fact, I found some things about the film to be welcome additions to the stage production. Specifically, I found the new depth of Alana’s storyline (played by Amandla Stenberg in the film adaptation) and the addition of the song “The Anonymous Ones,” written by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Amandla Stenberg and performed by Stenberg, to contribute significantly to the emotional impact of film, particularly for those of us who can identify with hiding our mental health struggles.
In “The Anonymous Ones,” Alana, the high-achieving student body president of Evan’s high school, confesses that she, too, suffers from anxiety along with many others neither of them will ever know. Chbosky’s direction of the scene emphasizes Alana’s vulnerability in sharing her mental health issues with Evan (played by Ben Platt). The scene begins with just Alana and Evan sitting together on a childhood swing set in the stillness of the night as Alana quietly begins to share one of her deepest secrets. Throughout Stenberg’s performance, she repeatedly avoids eye contact with Evan while she confesses, giving the viewer the sense that they are part of a very intimate moment. The acoustic guitar and synthesizer chords in the song’s first verse invite the listener to carefully listen to Stenberg’s quiet, breathy vocal performance. Lyrics like “ever look at all the people who seem to know exactly how to be?/ you think ‘they don’t need piles of prescriptions to function naturally’” are like a punch to the gut for those of us who are all too familiar with this specific envy.
As the song transitions into the first chorus, minor chords are introduced on the piano to add to the emotional effect of lyrics like “the anonymous ones/ never let you see the ache they carry.” The synthesis of the emotional music with the poignant lyrics is designed to resonate with the target audience of teens and young adults who are used to hiding their mental health struggles in order to maintain impressive outward appearances. The message of the song is particularly salient in communities where high-achievement is a prerequisite, such as elite universities like Vanderbilt. It’s in these communities that brutally candid lyrics like “spot the girl who stays in motion/ she spins so fast so she won’t fall/ she’s built a wall with her achievements/ to keep out the question/ ‘without it, is she worth anything at all?” are difficult to swallow. For me, it is startling to have a mirror held up to my experience with such searing accuracy, giving a voice to thoughts I would rarely ever utter.
When the song transitions into the second verse and final chorus, the scene transforms from the swing set into a flashback to the first day of school. Chbosky shifts the audience to follow Alana’s journey as she navigates her anxiety instead of focusing on Evan’s point of view (“Waving Through a Window”). Stenberg’s subtle acting beautifully and accurately shows the carefully choreographed dance of avoidance and placation that those of us with anxiety perform on a daily basis. She quickly oscillates between darting eyes, fidgety hands, and brief unconvincing smiles. Stenberg begins singing in her resonant chest voice, complementing the added orchestration of strings and percussion. As Alana steels herself for another day of pretending to be fine, Stenberg passionately belts a G4 to express Alana’s frustration and desperation. When the song reaches its conclusion, Stenberg repeatedly sings the lyrics “the parts we can’t tell, we carry them well/ but that doesn’t mean they’re not heavy,” performing the lines like a mantra. The repetition makes the emotional weight of Alana’s confession truly sink in for the audience — Alana carries the weight of feeling as though she must hide her pain every single day. The instrumentation concludes with a rallentando allowing Stenberg to perform the final few lines a capella. The effect is haunting.
With the addition of “The Anonymous Ones,” Pasek, Paul, Stenberg, and Chbosky have done something special: they have provided a voice specifically for the high-achievers who most people would never suspect of struggling with mental illness. Sure, this subset is definitely a small minority, but, for me, I am so grateful to have this representation and to feel as though someone understands and recognizes my experience. After all, isn’t the point of art to help us feel a little less alone?