Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published June 11th 2021
When acting has no age limit
I recently got involved in an online "discussion" about actors. I refused to name my favourite actors (I don't really have one) and just agreed (or, occasionally disagreed) with the choices of others. Then someone mentioned an actor who started life as a child actor. I said he became a good actor as he got older, but as a kid, he was not good at all. This changed the tone of the discussion quite a deal, so I apologised and left it.
However, it did get me to thinking what were the best performances by child actors and so, by extension, who were the best child actors I have seen?
First, I needed some definitions. Child, I decided was someone aged thirteen years and under, because, in South Australia, that is generally the age of kids at primary school and lower. Second, only in films, not television series. Third, and this was most important, I need to like the whole movie in question and not just the acting.
So, in that vein, here are my favourite ten performances by children. I have not seen Jackie Coogan in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, and have been led to believe the performance is amazing. I have seen most of the Harry Potter films, and various other young adult and middle-grade movies (thanks, university!), so you can see what I thought of those by their placement in this list. This is in order of the year of release of the films, then age of the actors.
I recommend all of these films, and these performances are a part of what makes them so good.
Chloe Franks, aged 8, in The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
I mentioned this movie before in my portmanteau film column, and in that made a point of Franks' performance. As a girl who works out she is a witch, she holds her own against and takes down Christopher Lee in her little section. And that smile at the end of her section says more than words ever could. She delivers a truly creepy depiction of a young evil child without going over the top in any way.
Ricky Schroder, aged 9, in The Champ (1979)
Schroder is not only the star of this film, but the emotional core around which the whole thing is built, and he delivers in spades. You really believe how he feels, especially at the end after the final fight when (SPOILER!) his father, played by Jon Voight, has been killed in the boxing ring. I saw this film as a teenager and the tears welled in my eyes. He holds that film together.
Emil Minty, aged 9, in Mad Max 2 (1981)
He might only have a bit part in the film as "the feral kid", but he is an important character as an adult feral kid provides the pre- and post- action narration. He does not have language skills in the film, grunting like an animal, and yet you know exactly what he is thinking and feeling. And he has the cool metal, bladed boomerang which he catches with a butcher's glove of some sort. It is actually a very good performance in something of a cult classic film, and he stands out as much as any of the adult cast members.
Wil Wheaton, aged 13, in Stand By Me (1986)
First, why only Wil Wheaton? Okay, I think three of the leads were amazing Wheaton, Corey Feldman and River Phoenix and O'Connell who was the fourth was okay. However, together, as an ensemble, they do an amazing job in this filmic version of Stephen King's novella The Body, one of the better King adaptations. But for a thirteen year old, Wheaton was amazing. And this is such a good coming-of-age movie, one that is timeless, probably because it is set so far in the past when it was made and now, and is one I still think is a great movie.
Macaulay Culkin, aged 10, in Home Alone (1990)
Culkin is not just the star of this film, his comedic timing is a match for all the adults. This first in the series is one of the best kid-led films I have seen and can make adults laugh as well as children. It is really a cartoon brought to life. And, yes, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern hold their own, but Culkin, from the time he finds he is alone, through to his acts of violence that could have been ripped out of an old Looney Tunes cartoon is such a great character and engaging to watch.
Kirsten Dunst, aged 11, in Interview With The Vampire (1994)
I am going to say it right here this is the best performance by a child actor I have seen. She might only appear in a small section of the film, but her portrayal of a child who has lived a long life and so has the mind and attitudes of an adult as well as being a vampire and then wanting a mother is so amazingly stunning that it is hard to remember she was only 11 years old when she made the movie. The fact she is not over-shadowed by Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise says it all she showed from such an early age what talent she has.
Haley Joel Osment, aged 10, in The Sixth Sense (1999)
This film would not have worked quite as well as it did including the twist at the end if not for Osment's performance as the kid who says, "I see dead people." You believe him, his fear, his emotional confusion. How can a little kid cope with that? Well, he can't, and Osment shows that instead of tells us. I would put it down to the writing and direction, but M. Night Shyamalan's subsequent work tells us that maybe that is not the case, but the acting of Osment, Willis and Collette brought the film to its heights.
Chloλ Grace Moretz, aged 12, in Kick-Ass (2010)
As the girl whose life was not her own but an extension of her father's, Moretz was incredible in this film. Swearing like the proverbial sailor, kicking ass like the title suggests, and yet showing that she was not a normal girl who had not had a normal upbringing she did an awesome job. It helps that the film is so self-aware and well-done, and Nicholas Cage as her father is wonderful in his Nicholas Cage-ness, but she carries this moreso than the lead. She showed so much talent here, it is just a shame that so many of her subsequent films have not been as good. She can be relied on to deliver a good performance, but her choice of role feels like it lets her down. Not here. Kick-Ass is great.
Hailee Steinfeld, aged 13, in True Grit (2010)
I was wary going into this remake of one of my favourite John Wayne films, and only did so because it was directed by the Coen brothers. I was so surprised. It is an equal to the original. In fact, Steinfeld, playing 14 year old Mattie Ross, is better than Kim Darby was in the original. It does help that Jeff Bridges is great as well, but Steinfeld does not drag the film down, and in some of her emotional scenes, she stands out amazingly well.
Dafne Keen, aged 11, in Logan (2017)
I watched this film because when it comes to superhero films, no matter how bad they might be, I am a complete sucker. This, though, was one of the very best. What happens when superheroes grow old and infirm? But it was not just that it was the next generation of mutants, including Keen, who played Laura, the clone/daughter of Hugh Jackman's Wolverine. The other children were okay, but Keen was incredible. When she loses her cool and goes all Wolverine on people, she is incredible, and at the end when Wolverine is in her arms, she is so believable it is heart-rending. The next generation of acting is in good hands.
So there we are. Ten of the best performances by child actors. In general, I find younger actors drag the films they star in down (see any film starring the Olsen twins), or the inclusion of a child actor makes a film worse (e.g. Blues Brothers 2000). But when you see performances like these ten, then you know that sometimes the younger actors can be awesome.