Why Teenagers Need to Play Teenagers On Screen
There’s a scene in Palo Alto, the new film from writers James Franco and Gia Coppola (also the film’s director), where the gaggle of wealthy, listless teenagers gather for yet another Friday night rager thrown by a nameless jock from their high school. The drunkest of the bunch gather around the kitchen, the girls from the soccer team teetering in their high heels that they think make them look sophisticated as the guys try to inch in closer for a drinking game to make things worse – or “more interesting,” one of the girls in glitter eyeshadow cackles. Our protagonists, the outsiders April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nate Wolff), ditch the festivities to go hang out in a graveyard and wander their neighborhood like any good weirdos do.
It’s an all too familiar flashback to anybody’s high school experience, that intense boredom combined with a need to be something more than just another face at the party, that desire to be anywhere but your small town and a twinge of wanting to be a kid again at the same time. In short, being a teenager sucks, and Palo Alto expresses every miserable moment of it beautifully. But it’s not just good writing and set dressing that creates an accurate high school portrayal on film. By casting actual teenagers (and one very young adult, with Emma Roberts clocking in at age 20 during production) to portray their teen characters, the story was leant an authenticity that just couldn’t be seen if Coppola had gone the popular route of casting actors in their late 20s to play out her vision.
It’s an issue seen with countless depictions of teens in media. From glossy dramas on the CW, to YA adaptations on the big screen, to more subdued productions on smaller networks, directors tend to go with casting actors who skew older – sometimes much, much older – than the teenagers they’re attempting to embody. It’s the “Seventeen” magazine problem: when girls are 12 and supposed to be reading something like “Girl’s Life,” they’re really reading “Seventeen,” when they’re 17 they’ve moved on to the 101 ways to please your man in “Cosmo,” and by the time they’re supposed to level up to appropriate “Cosmo” reading age, it’s become apparent how ridiculous it all seems. By then they’re reading tamer fare like fashion magazines and “Martha Stuart Living” because it’s ironic. And you know, pies.
When 12-year-old girls are watching something like the CW’s long-running campy drama One Tree Hill (which aired from 2003–2012), in which actors like 25-year-old Hilarie Burton played 17-year-old cheerleader Peyton Sawyer, they’re not seeing an accurate portrayal of their future on screen. They’re seeing a glamorized vision of some executive’s idealized version of high school instead. When a real 16-year-old cheerleader flips on the CW and sees fellow pompom shakers who look like Burton or costar Sophia Bush, also well beyond her high school years, they’re looking at themselves at wondering why they don’t look like that in their uniform. Here’s the secret: they didn’t when they were 16, either.
That other staple of CW teen dramatics, Gossip Girl, was not known for being quite realistic (a certain ecstasy-lined jacket at a fashion show and an NYU dorm with a chandelier and sushi bar come to mind), and it didn’t really have to be, because it existed in a fantasy world where people wear candy-colored blazers year-round and consequences don’t matter if your hair is shiny enough. While it fell into the same realm as OTH in terms of overshooting the age limits when casting its band of over privileged “teens” (hey 16-year-old Blake Lively), one role they did get right was little sister Jenny Humphrey – played by actual 16-year-old Taylor Momsen.
The show was never really a bastion of a great acting or writing, but when there’s an actual teenager on screen talking about dating and school and her internship, there’s more believability in her performance than when she’s standing next to an actress in her mid-20s complaining about failing another algebra test. There’s something almost annoying about watching someone practically perfect and experienced pretend that they’re just another clumsy and average teenager struggling through life. As a teenager, you want to see someone like you on screen; the Serena Van der Woodsens of the world aren’t making things any easier with their flyaway-free hair and wardrobes that didn’t come from Target.
Of course, it’s not just the CW that’s guilty. Glee is one of the worst offenders, casting a whole slew of singers who wouldn’t have set foot in the halls of McKinley High for years before the show began. At age 27, Lea Michele is currently playing 19-year-old college freshman turned Broadway superstar Rachel Berry. Cory Monteith, who played Glee’s resident sensitive jock Finn Hudson up until his death in 2013, was 31 years old – just a few years younger than Matthew Morrison, the man playing their teacher.
It’s completely understandable why older actors are getting cast as teens – they want a hyper-attractive cast full of talented players. But plotline after plotline about Rachel being insecure about her prettiness and how Tina wants to be prom queen sooooo bad seem forced when you know that in real life they’ve ditched that scene years and years ago. Casting kids who are actually living the genuine teachable moments and dealing with heartbreaking issues would make every episode that much more powerful.
That’s likely why Skins did so well in the UK for so many seasons, and why it failed so miserably when it was adapted in the United States. For those unfamiliar with British teen dramas (we can’t all be 15-year-old girls with access to Hulu accounts), the massively popular series ran from 2007–2013 and followed a group of friends in Bristol through the two years of Sixth Form (the last two years of high school, essentially) as they drank, abused drugs, experimented with sex and tested the limits of their relationships and friendships. There was death, pregnancy, gay relationships, struggles with homelessness, the whole shebang. What made it controversial was that it used actual teenagers to depict all of the debauchery. But this choice was so effective; their issues became engrossing and as real as anyone at your school’s problems because they were just like anyone at your school.
But when someone at MTV got the great idea to adapt Skins for an American audience, the idea didn’t work. People were turned off by the litter of sweet young faces participating in illicit activities. If only they had stopped to realize this was the reality around them – kids are doing everything shown on TV and in film and more, whether Lea Michele portrays it or not.
That’s why it would be wonderful to have seen something like The Hunger Games cast teenagers in the roles meant to go to teens. While Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic as Katniss Everdeen (there’s no denying it), she’s supposed to be 16, and the other tributes are all children as well. The truth of the matter is that studio executives likely got icky about seeing kids and their cute baby faces murdering each other on a giant movie screen. Understandable, yes, but to be true to the story, a horribly brutal, tragic story that takes no mercy on children and the other kids they’re forced to murder, they should be seen doing the deed. Skewing the ages of the main characters higher isn’t hiding the fact from anyone that this is a society where children must fight to the death for the amusement of the wealthy It might as well be shown. Don’t underestimate what kids are capable of doing; let them have their moment, even if it’s horrible.
For the number of teenagers on screen, the amount of actual teenagers needs to be elevated. Being a kid is rough. You remember it. There’s only so much time we have to tell our story as a teenager, and they need to be the ones telling it – not someone who’s already had their turn. How else are they going to get their voice heard?