Firefly Lane and the Problem with Aging up and Down

Netflix new drama Firefly Lane spans three eras in two friends’ lives, but the casting choices make for an uncomfortable watch.

Firefly Lane Sarah Chalke, Katherine Heigl and Ben Lawson
These people are supposed to be in their 20s Photo: Netflix

Stockard Channing was 33 when she played teenager Rizzo in Grease. Angelia Jolie was 29 when she played Colin Farrell’s mother in Alexander – only one year older than he was.

Films and shows cast actors outside their own age all the time, and it’s not unusual for actors to be aged up or aged down when a show or film takes place over a long time period, but in Firefly Lane this really jars.

Tully and Kate are best friends since the age of 14 back in 1974 – Firefly Lane follows the journey of the two, from young teens coping with family and school, to ambitious 20-somethings in the 1980s, to their lives at 43, with Kate going through a divorce and Tully juggling a successful TV career.

Teenage Tully and Kate are played by Ali Skovbye (aged 18) and Roan Curtis (24 as of Feb 2021), while 20-something Tully and Kate and 40-something Tully and Kate are played by 40-somethings Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke.

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Though Skovbye and Curtis would clearly have been more convincing as bright eyed 20-year-olds navigating the ruthless world of journalism in the 80s, Chalke and Heigl are the big stars here and would always have had the lion’s share of screen time. Both are good, and we are not for a second saying that actors should be compelled to only play within their own age ranges. Nor are we criticising Chalke and Heigl for not looking 20. But because of the structure of Firefly Lane this choice forces us to do some uncomfortable mental gymnastics. 

With Ben Lawson – also in his 40s – cast as Johnny, Kate and Tully’s boss and the third part of the love triangle, this gives a rather strange feeling to the 80-set narrative. Not fresh-faced kids scrabbling for a living, this lot, but actual grown ups, this section doesn’t quite work. Kate being so desperate to make Johnny’s coffee and do his filing, for example, doesn’t feel like the buzz of a young woman getting a foot in the doors as a journalist but a grown woman grovelling to an actually slightly younger (but also fully grown) male.

Tully dating her tutor Chad Wiley (Patrick Sabongui – aged 46) loses any sense of creepiness, coercion or abuse of power – it’s just too easy to forget she’s supposed to be an innocent youngster just starting out. 

Firefly Lane Katherine  Heigl and Patrick Sabongui
Katherine Heigl and Patrick Sabongui who make quite a nice couple.

More problems arise in handling Kate and Tully’s parents. Kate’s dad, Bud, played by Paul McGillion (aged 52) and mum Margie, played by Chelah Horsdal (aged 47) just about get away with it if we accept they had their kids young and aged really well.

Tully’s mum, Cloud, played by 38 year old Beau Garrett is a harder sell. In the 70s set segment she is perfect – beautiful, ethereal and entirely irresponsible, the push and pull relationship between her and young Tully is convincing and poignant. But once Heigl takes on the role of Tully, suspension of disbelief becomes almost impossible. Struggling with how to make Garrett convincing as Heigl’s mum when Tully is in her 40s, Garrett is essentially done up to look like the scary witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

It’s not the fault of the performances, but despite how many awful 80s outfits and cultural references are plonked in front of us the leap is just a bit too big.

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Firefly Lane is available to stream on Netflix now.