The legendary W.C. Fields once said “never work with animals or children,” but that advice has thankfully been broken time and time again, and especially in 2013, when a whole crop younger thespians were able to truly show their chops (not to mention the cat performances from “Inside Llewyn Davis”). Since so many of our favorite movies this year were enhanced and made real by younger performers, we wanted to highlight their contributions in a stand-alone feature,
Many of these films are about coming of age, of straddling that line between childhood and adulthood. Then there are other stories of very young people who are faced with very adult problems and performances that capture the complex inner lives of children. Childhood is such a culturally contested time of life—many adults view it through nostalgia-tinted glasses as a time of pure innocence and happiness untainted by life experience. But a more realistic view of childhood is that children are just as emotionally and morally complex as adults; they struggle with the same choices and problems in their own way. These films, and these performers, captured and expressed those themes so well, and for that, we had to give them their due.
10. Annie Rose Buckley – “Saving Mr. Banks”
What all of the commercials for “Saving Mr. Banks“—sprinkled with fairy dust and scored by soaring, inspirational music—aren’t telling you is that a fair amount of the movie is set in 1907 Australia and follows the younger version of “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), a lifetime before she entered into the tense negotiations to have her work adapted by affable ole Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). This is where we meet the young Travers, going by her birth name Helen Goff and played by young Annie Rose Buckley. Young Helen is referred to as “Ginty” by her moody, alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), and much of the movie rests on her tiny little shoulders. Buckley still manages to give a rousing performance, not only crafting a believably solid character (one who reacts to what’s going on more than actively participates) but also serving as a kind of human time machine for which the elder Travers can revisit her dusty, frontier past. As Buckley goes through the course of the movie, you can watch her resolve start to steel itself. The elder Travers is being formed right before our eyes. And while she doesn’t have any of the movie’s showy, tug-on-your-heartstrings moments (she unfortunately does not get to join in on “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”), it’s still a child performance of uncommon depth and subtlety, indeed in places it’s downright magical.
9. Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias – “The Kings of Summer”
Much like another entry on this list, “Mud,” Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “The Kings of Summer” attempts to capture a fleeting moment of teenage boyhood, a version imbued with nostalgia for the wild, natural world. But while Nichols chooses a crime/mystery setting to tell that story, Vogt-Roberts goes for an almost fantastical, funny version, and lets his three leads shine. Nick Robinson, as the tortured Joe, suggests to his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) that they build a house in the woods to escape their overbearing parents. They do, and somehow end up with the delightful weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias) tagging along. Much of the film is unrealistic, but that’s okay, in a way, because it’s like a boy’s fantasy of a perfect world: friends, woods, no parents, beer sometimes, and a nearby Boston Market. Then girls get involved and things go downhill, but it remains up high tonally, never getting into anything too dark. Robinson is a standout, growing a bizarre mustache and descending into a deep hole of madness beyond his years, realizing that he’s slowly turning into his grump of a father (Nick Offerman). Arias is also a treat, letting Biaggio’s truly off-beat freak flag fly, and he brings a fun sense of weird to proceedings that could otherwise get mired in the love triangle between Joe, Patrick and Kelly (Erin Moriarty). Though differing in tone, “Mud” and “Kings of Summer” celebrate that short moment between boyhood and manhood, and both offer tribute to the wild ways of boys, cut all too short these days.
8. Keith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, et al – “Short Term 12”
We’ve given a lot of shine to “Short Term 12,” for standout performances by Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield (not to mention an excellent turn by John Gallagher Jr.) and ace writing/directing from Destin Daniel Cretton. But as much as it’s a film about young adults finding their way, it’s also about the kids that they work with at the short-term foster care facility, and they too deserve their due. Kaitlyn Dever as the dark and traumatized Jayden is both heartbreaking and terrifying in her performance, as well as Stanfield. Alex Calloway is tasked with an almost entirely physical performance that requires him to be nearly catatonic at times, and running wild in others, his attempted jailbreaks also serve as bookends to the film. Kevin Hernandez’s Luis is a smart ass foil to Stanfield’s Marcus, as both his nemesis and punching bag. What “Short Term 12” does so well is balance the darker moments with authentic humor, which serves as a relief and release of tension but also reflects how things would go in real life. The kids are a large part of that, imbuing the proceedings with their own natural, goofy selves. Kids are weird and funny and these are no different, despite the circumstances. Their presence helps to make the world around Larson’s Grace feel real, but they’re more than just a setting—they’re fully realized and authentic characters with backstories and futures, and it is this multitude of diverse stories that makes “Short Term 12” so powerful.
7. Elyes Aguis – “The Past”
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi sure loves his familial discord and heartbreak. In “A Separation,” he depicted an estranged couple on their way to a divorce. And in “The Past,” he weaves a complex narrative four years into a separation that’s belatedly about to conclude in a finalized divorce. Caught at the center of it all is, well, everyone, but perhaps especially, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), the Iranian ex-husband who has agreed to come back to France to grant his wife a divorce. He arrives into the tumult of a new and tenuous family—his ex wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and her new lover Samir (Tahar Rahim)—but of course, the children too are caught in the crosshairs. With two kids from a previous marriage, Marie’s about to move on to her third husband, which further wounds her teenage daughter Lucie (an excellent Pauline Burlet). But perhaps most uncertain and therefore discontented and tantrum-prone is Samir’s 7 year old son Fouad. Played by Elyes Aguis, Fouad has seen his share of confusion and suffering at far too young an age. His mother’s in a coma due to a suicide attempt and he’s recently upended his life by moving in with Marie and her children. When Ahmad arrives and tensions arise between the adult trio, it reaches a kind of tipping point for the boy and his bewildered confusion. At one point, he tries to escape his own father in the subway much to his father’s outraged disbelief. Scolded, little Fouad is a ball of resentment he doesn’t even even quite fully comprehend what’s going on: he’s all tears and little fists of anger. Aguis’ performance doesn’t ask for sympathy, it just is the authentic face of the wounded and contains all the elements of teenage angst in the making.
6. Annika Wedderkopp – “The Hunt”
If there’s a single villain in this complex, modern witch hunt drama from Thomas Vinterberg, fingers could point toward Annika Wedderkopp’s Klara. The young girl in “The Hunt” has a crush on her teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), who with absolute correctness, gently turns her away when her declaration of affection veers toward inappropriate. As an act of revenge, she then accuses him of revealing himself to her. The community responds, ignoring Lucas’s denials and taking Klara’s word, with Lucas then becoming the victim of harassment and violence. What she does is reprehensible (and Klara is only slightly vindicated when she admits the truth), but the character isn’t damned due to both her innocence about the consequences and Wedderkopp’s realistic, heartbreaking performance. In the early, lighter scenes, she has wonderful chemistry with Mikkelsen, where her admiration is clear. Later in “The Hunt,” when she makes her accusation, it’s gasp-inducing, not only because of the lie she tells but because of how well Klara does it (communicated by Wedderkopp perfectly). The subject matter here is incredibly mature, and we can’t imagine grappling with even shades of that at such a young age. This is Wedderkopp’s only screen credit, and we’re curious what she’d do in the future with material that’s less disturbing.
5. Keita Ninomiya – “Like Father, Like Son”
“When I choose child actors, I chose them for their personalities. And then I work with their own vocabulary, so I’m not imposing text or dialogue on them, I’m just receiving. I’m catching their dialogue and putting it in my film,” Kore-eda Hirokazu recently told us in Marrakech about his technique when working with kids. And he certainly got a personality in the young Keita Ninomiya who plays the six year-old at the center of “Like Father, Like Son.” The tender drama centers on Keita (so named in the film too), whose parents find out he’s actually not their child, and that their baby was accidentally switched at birth. And while the movie mostly investigates what the parent/child relationship really means, and if it can be tied by bonds other than blood, Keita is given a particularly difficult challenge for a young kid, in only his second film. Not only does he have to react to his own, already stern father, who begins to pull away as he questions his feelings for a child who is now a stranger in his house, Keita also has to navigate his life with his “real” family whom he begins to spend time with. And while all due credit is certainly deserved for Kore-eda in evoking some very naturalistic performances from all the kids in the film, none of it works unless the actors are able to get to the wavelength required for what are more than a few emotionally complex scenes. And Ninomiya does, beautifully conveying the innocence of a son who loves with the kind of unquestioning openness his own father seems to be unable to achieve. The pull of the heart strings this film accomplishes succeeds because of Nimomiya’s unaffected work, which is all the more impressive given the nuanced terrain he has to navigate.
4. Onata Aprile – “What Maisie Knew”
Equally heartbreaking and frustrating, “What Maisie Knew” can be a hard film to get behind. Centering on a young girl caught in the middle of her parents’ bitter custody battle in In New York City, like her ugly, selfish parents (played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan), ‘Maisie’ can be awfully manipulative, unfair and underhanded. Stuck in this mess in between two of the worst parents in the world is Maisie herself, a then 7-year-old Onata Aprile. The film becomes, at times, sentimental, contrived, convenient and maddening as this poor kid is shuffled between two parents and then even a third new family that emerges (Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham, who are good, but in an overstretched narrative twist are the romantic partners of the two aforementioned asshole parents). Throughout it all, keeping the movie anchored beyond its treacly or manufactured sentiments is Aprile, who plays things at a much softer, graceful note then her shrill guardians. More importantly, Aprile is a natural, playing the quietly wounded observer of her parents’ shitty behavior. One could argue her deer-in-headlights approach is one of a child actor probably not sophisticated enough to understand what’s going on, but that would be undercutting how much Aprile conveys that exact feeling of unease and discomfort, perhaps mentally filing it away for therapy sessions to come as an adult. With solid actors around her all playing the most rancid people alive, most importantly, you feel for Aprile. You want to save her, scoop her up and make sure next time she hits the screen that she’s given a movie and fictional parents she actually deserves.
3. Conner Chapman – “The Selfish Giant”
Already dubbed one of our top 25 Breakthrough Performances of the Year, Conner Chapman tackles the role of a troubled young boy in northern England in Clio Bernard’s “The Selfish Giant” (loosely based off of a real person Bernard met while shooting her first film “The Arbor”) with the impetuousness of a teenager and the veracity of a master that it’s almost hard to believe that this marks his first time onscreen. With ADHD and without a father figure, 13-year-old Arbor (Chapman) barely gets to school on time, let alone sits through class without causing some trouble. Arbor’s one source of constant support is his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas). With bleak day-to-day lives (lower middle class backgrounds, trouble in school, frequently picked on by their peers) and witnessing even bleaker prospects (both police and repo men knock at their doors, with Arbor’s drug addict brother and Swifty’s deep-in-debt father), both Swifty and Arbor hope to break out of their unpromising circumstances; the former looking to education at the behest of his mother and the latter looking to scrapping for money against his own mother’s wishes. Breaking their mothers’ hearts, the combination of Arbor not taking his medication and the local bullies taunting Swifty leads to both boys being excluded (or expelled, for us Yanks) from school. Now officially out of the system, Arbor goes full steam ahead searching for scrap metal by some dubious and desperate means (beg, borrow, steal) and enlists Swifty for help, leading to a climax which, though we’ve long sensed something ominous approaching, truly jolts the heartstrings. Both Thomas and Chapman are clearly remarkable talents, but the latter’s ability to throw himself so deeply and authentically into the character’s emotions without falling into melodrama or insincerity is what rivets the attention. As Arbor, Chapman never falters, from rough piss-taking to being coaxed from under his bed (his safe zone) to hesitantly, unsurely, trying to make amends. Capturing the full range and facets of Arbor as a young boy assuming more mature responsibilities too soon, Conner Chapman is surely a talent to look out for in the years to come.
2. Waad Mohammed – “Wadjda”
Haifaa al Mansour’s movie would be amazing just for its existence alone: it’s the first film made in Saudi Arabia, and it was directed by a woman in spite of the restricted society. But what might be most impressive is the performance from Waad Mohammed in her first film role. As 10-year-old Wadjda, Mohammed gives an authentic performance that feels like anything but a performance. Throughout most of the film, Mohammed gives the title character a spirited energy, as she works toward her goal of owning a forbidden bike in the suburbs of Riyadh. Later in the film, Wadjda realizes that her best chances at owning the green bike—and therefore beating a neighborhood boy in a race—is to pretend to be a good, obedient student and win a Koran recitation competition. The role-within-a-role gives Mohammed even more room to stretch and impress, as she plays a young girl pretending to follow the rules so she can ultimately break them. Hopefully, “Wadjda” is only the first of many films we’ll see from Saudi Arabia, and we’re eager to see more of Mohammed as well.
1. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland – ”Mud”
“Mud,” Jeff Nichols’ follow up to “Take Shelter,” has been hailed as one of the best films of the year, and features one of the all-time great Matthew McConaughey performances as the drifter Mud. But there are two very important elements that make the film work as well as it does, and they come in the form of Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, as friends Ellis and Neckbone, who get caught up in the mystery surrounding Mud and his circumstances. It’s really a two-hander between McConaughey and Sheridan, but the film absolutely would not work without the perfectly written, perfectly pitched character of Neckbone, as played by Lofland. He’s a tiny, little foul-mouthed man in a boy’s body, and his dose of authentic deadpan balances what could possibly tip into sentimentality. He’s skeptical but deeply loyal and his perspective is needed to match the blind nobility that Sheridan’s Ellis espouses. Speaking of Sheridan, it’s insane to think that his first film role was in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” just a few years ago, for how preternaturally comfortable and charismatic he is onscreen. He just has “it.” Ellis believes in honor, loyalty, true love, and in upholding those beliefs no matter what stands in his way (even if it is a half dozen armed bounty hunters). But at the same time that Sheridan and Lofland possess a wise-beyond-their-years sensibility, they are still just kids, and they look, move, and act like kids too. Lofland gives Neckbone these subtle gestures that speak volumes to his character and his relationship with Ellis, while Sheridan’s facial expressions reveal the inner turmoil that Ellis is experiencing. “Mud” celebrates boyhood in a very specific way, a sort of nostalgic version of boyhood that doesn’t rely on technology or other hallmarks of 21st century tweens, but on adventure, on wilderness, on dinghies and dirtbikes and crushing on girls who hang out in parking lots. As Ellis worries for the fate of his houseboat home on the wild river, we worry about the transient nature of boyhood that Sheridan and Lofland and Nichols have captured in “Mud.” We know that it’s fleeting, impermanent and something to be treasured for that moment.
Some of you are asking where’s Elle Fanning and her breathtaking performance in “Ginger & Rosa.” Yes, the movie is technically a 2013 movie (it came out in February), but many of us saw it in Telluride 2012 and for us the Sally Potter-directed movie ended up taking on a 2012 flavor (our editor-in-chief even put it on his Best Films of 2012 list). The movie was unfortunately caught in that neververse in between years and this is why we omitted it from this list (plus the fact that Fanning is in contention for our Breakthrough Performances list almost every year; she landed there in 2011). But make no mistake, we’re huge fans of the underrated film, think Fanning is going to grow up to be Meryl Streep, and think her performance in that film is stupendous.
Of course, there were a few performances that didn’t quite make it onto the list and 2013 was rich with fine showings from younger actors in smaller parts and leads. Mana Ashida made an impression with her single, emotional scene in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” offering a dose of backstory to the creature feature. Ty Simpkins also impressed in another superhero movie: “Iron Man 3.” On the indie side of things, twins Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith supported Rooney Mara and Ben Foster in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” as the four-year-old daughter Sylvie of Mara, with Casey Affleck as their jailbird daddy. Isabelle Nélisse and Megan Charpentier anchored the ghostly horror creep fest “Mama” with Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Colster-Waldau. Finally, Liam James perfectly captured the awkward ennui of the teenage boy in “The Way, Way Back” balanced by a heavy dose of humor from co-star River Alexander. — Katie Walsh, Kimber Myers, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Taylor, Diana Drumm