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Arrested development: why are adults still playing high-schoolers on screen?

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Erika Doss/AP</span>
Photograph: Erika Doss/AP

By all accounts, Dear Evan Hansen has plenty of problems to contend with. Transplanted to cinema from its Tony-winning Broadway run, it has been battered by critics for everything from its “overlong” runtime to its “wretched” writing to its “tone-deaf” plot. But nothing has set people’s teeth on edge quite like the sight of 27-year-old Ben Platt playing a teenage boy.

Related: Dear Evan Hansen review – ghoulish Ben Platt sinks high school musical

In fairness, the casting choice does make a sliver of sense on paper. Platt began playing Evan Hansen onstage in 2014. But he was 20 years old then, and so it wasn’t completely unthinkable that he could play a handful of years younger. The film, however, is a different story. On camera, which is always much less forgiving than the distance of a theatre seat, he is clearly much older than everyone else in his school. Add this to his twitchy, mannered, two-dimensionally outsidery performance, and Dear Evan Hansen suddenly takes on a sinister new bent. Watch the trailer alone and you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a film about a dangerous pervert with a pathological desire to pose as a child, or a grown man hired by the government to infiltrate a school and tacitly teach the students about the lingering spectre of death.

If anything, Platt’s performance is concrete proof that adults need to stop playing teenagers as soon as possible. If you’ve seen Hulu’s PEN15, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The series – in which Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play adolescent versions of themselves attempting to navigate high school – recently aired an animated episode. At the time I pegged it as my favourite of the series so far, but then I went back and thought about why. It was because Erskine and Konkle were only voicing their characters, rather than dressing up like schoolgirls and acting them out. Seeing two women in their mid-30s pose as children, especially in scenes where they have to be romantic with actual children, is a hell of a hurdle to clamber over. If it were simply a cartoon all the way through, I’m sure many more people would be willing to try it.

Look hard enough and you’ll be bombarded with less egregious examples. Sex Education’s Eric, for example, is supposed to be 17 years old. However, the actor who plays him, Ncuti Gatwa, is just weeks away from his 29th birthday. Mindy Kaling once congratulated herself for casting a teenage actor as the lead of her Netflix sitcom Never Have I Ever. That said, her 16-year-old love interest is played by Darren Barnet, who turned 30 in April.

And then there’s Stranger Things. The first season derived all of its charm from watching an excitable band of tweenagers cosplay their way through nostalgic sci-fi tropes. But they all got the job six years ago, when they were actually young. Technically just 20 months separates the first and third season of Stranger Things, but the cast aged four years in that time. By the time season four arrives next year, Caleb McLaughlin will be pushing 21, with the rest of the cast in hot pursuit. So what happens? Do they play their age and destroy the central theme of the show, or do they go full Ben Platt and pretend that the ageing process can be halted?

In fact, Stranger Things is a very good example of why adult actors are often used to play teenage roles on TV. Your teenage years are a highly volatile time, when your face, body and voice can change again and again in a matter of months. By the time you’re in your 20s, that has all settled down, so there’s a case for arguing that a young adult will make a more consistent teenage presence than an actual teenager.

But Dear Evan Hansen isn’t a TV show. It’s a film, and a film filled with actors who are visibly much younger than Ben Platt. Perhaps the film could have gone down the Grease route and just filled the entire school with transparently adult adults to lessen the shock. Olivia Newton-John was 29 when Grease was filmed. Michael Tucci was 31. Stockard Channing was 33.

And it worked, sort of, because everyone was that age. If they’d stuck an actual 17-year-old in there for fun, staggering around in abject terror because all their schoolmates suddenly looked like their parents, then the jig would have been up. But they didn’t, because they’re not stupid. Dear Evan Hansen, meanwhile, has done the opposite. There are loads of children, and then a disastrously de-aged adult hoofing around in the centre of them looking like somebody has tried to draw a human face on a thumb. It’s horrible.

Still, at least Platt has a way to go before he catches up with the weirdest ever adult-as-teen performance in screen history. Barbara Streisand was 41 when she played a 17-year-old girl in Yentl. Perhaps Platt can match her by holding on and revisiting the character in Dear Evan Hansen 2: The Ickening.

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