From Travolta to Platt: adults playing film teens

Photo coutesy of Ajay_Suresh, Flickr

The film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen” was released in theaters and online last weekend. Ben Platt played the role of Evan from the early stages of the workshop for the musical to the original Broadway production.

He certainly breathes the heart and soul of Evan Hansen and should be applauded for his commitment to the character, but I feel that his casting in the film was the wrong move.

There’s a clear difference between playing a teenager on a stage and playing one in a movie. In a theatre, you’re extremely far away and have to rely mostly on physicality to understand a character’s age. Whereas on screen, you can see someone’s pores, fine lines, and other mature facial features.

Platt was barely in his twenties when he landed the stage production role, but he is now 27 and definitely looks his age. The casting decision sparked an uproar from theatre lovers claiming he was too old to play the part.

To solve the issue of his appearance, the makeup team slathered his face in makeup, gave him a super curly mop of hair to cover forehead lines and used some minor prosthetics.

A New York Times review of the film compared Ben Platt’s appearance to that of John Travolta in “Grease”—highly unrealistic. Platt’s other castmates, like Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg, are both in their early twenties, but look very young for their ages.

Nik Dodani, who plays Jared Kleinman, is around the same age as Platt, and while an excellent casting choice personality-wise, I’d argue still looks a little too old.

Platt is an extremely talented actor. So why all the fuss over his appearance?

The entertainment industry frequently casts people 18 and older to play teenagers because it allows production companies to avoid child labor laws. Some actors can definitely pull it off, but in most cases, you are able to tell, especially depending on how mature the subject matter is.

One big reason why casting grown adults to play teens is a bad idea is because it’s an unrealistic portrayal of teenagers. Classic teen dramas like “Pretty Little Liars” and “Riverdale” portray teens as highly fashionable, attending school in a full face of makeup every day and rocking a pair of heels. Not to mention there is no acne in sight and all the actors have gone through puberty already.

It’s entertaining, but it’s more idealistic than realistic. Comparing yourself at 15 to someone who is 25 playing a 15 year old sets an unrealistic beauty standard. And it’s weird to have young teens relating to grown adults over teenage problems.

At the end of the day, we usually expect these slice-of-life dramas to have an element of realism to them. For “Dear Evan Hansen,” that means watching teenagers deal with mental health issues, make mistakes and recover.

The story deals with heavy topics. Evan tells a lie about being friends with Connor, a kid at his school who dies by suicide. As he spirals further and further into the lie, he hurts all the people in his life, and this makes him a complicated protagonist. He gets some sympathy points when you realize he is just a teenager who was too immature to realize the gravity of his decisions. These points get absolutely shattered when the person making the mistakes is clearly a full grown adult.

The heavy subject matter and Platt’s uncanny appearance make it challenging to view the film as something that could actually happen. Instead of giving us a real example of teenagers today, we are forced to suspend our disbelief.