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The 20 Best Child Performances Of The Century So Far

The 20 Best Child Performances Of The Century So Far

This week sees the opening of two very different films—Lenny Abrahamson‘s “Room” (our review) and Cary Fukunaga‘s “Beasts of No Nation” (our review)— that are linked by one crucial element: they both revolve around performances by children. Jacob Tremblay has received nothing but the most effusive praise for his portrayal of a boy raised in captivity in the Toronto International Film Festival Audience Award winner “Room,” while Abraham Attah received the Venice Film Festival Best Young Actor Award for his magnetic and disturbing turn in ‘Beasts,’ and gained probably the biggest, most heartfelt ovation of the festival. As risky as it can be to hang your film on a juvenile performance, this week proves that it can pay off handsomely if you cast the right child.

Part of the added interest that casting a child brings is due directly to their youth and untested nature —there is a freshness that more experienced performers can lose, and if a child proves his or her acting mettle, it seems all the more impressive a discovery for having seemingly come from nowhere. But there’s also a different kind of magic that cinema captures that makes these rare jewels shine all the brighter: a sense of temporality, of catching a singular moment in time.

With two great examples in theaters this weekend, we felt this was a good chance to take a look at the best of the field of the past 15 years. Avoiding (for the most part) the treacly, the cutesy, and the stage-school bratty, here are 20 of our favorite child performances of the 21st century in no particular order.

Keisha Castle-Hughes in “Whale Rider” (2003)
In her first film, shot when she was just 11, Keisha Castle-Hughes plays the daughter in a long line of sons who fights to fulfill her destiny as the leader of her ancient Maori tribe, despite the patriarchal nature of the clan’s traditions. But Niki Caro‘s affecting film skillfully avoids feeling like a live-action Disney movie that the preceding suggests (though there are elements in common) by thoroughly bedding down into its arcane environment and culture, with Castle-Hughes delivering a powerful turn that, like some other titles here, helps the film achieve its folk-tale-in-the-real-world tone. Aided by great supporting turns, especially from Cliff Curtis as her unconventional father, Castle-Hughes held the title of youngest-ever Best Actress nominee for her role here until the record was broken by Quvenzhane Wallis. The richness of the emotion she brings to this lovely story suggests it was truly deserved. 

Conner Chapman in “The Selfish Giant” (2013)
A snarling spitfire of a performance, Conner Chapman’s raw-nerve turn as Arbor inClio Barnard‘s ragged, rending “The Selfish Giant” is a brilliant evocation of the term “troubled child.” Arbor is explicitly vicious, ungovernable and somewhat terrifying to the helpless grown-ups around him, but through his friendship with Swifty (the also terrific Shaun Thomas), who’s as big, soft and slow as Arbor is wiry, tense and volatile, Chapman gives the film the heart beneath all that grit. Barnard’s film is astonishing for how well it sits within the tradition of British kitchen-sink social realism while subtly building a narrative that becomes as allegorical as its title, and Chapman is the live-wire lightning rod through which all of that energy is conducted, effortlessly earning all the sympathy that Arbor himself would no doubt fling back in your face.

Saoirse Ronan in “Atonement” (2007)
Maturing into easily one of the best actresses of her generation, Irish national treasure Ronan first came to attention for her third film role, as the childish dark heart of Joe Wright‘s Ian McEwan adaptation. The actress’ almost uncanny, certainly un-cute self-possession and her steady watchfulness is perfect for the role of precocious false accuser Briony Tallis, so that she remains the most memorable aspect (apart possibly from that celebrated long take and Keira Knightley‘s green dress) of the film. Getting an Oscar nomination for her trouble, Ronan was only one of three actresses to play the character over the course of her life —Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave being the other two (but don’t fear: apparently Briony sported the exact same side-barrette hairstyle over the span of 80 years, so we always know who’s who.)

Owen Kline in “The Squid and the Whale” (2005)
Sometimes you are forced to think about what happens when these kids leave the shoot, the film comes out and they’re hanging out with their friends. What do they make of it when the character you’ve played has his dysfunctional behavior at his parents’ separation manifested in compulsive masturbation at school? But Owen Kline’s performance in Noah Baumbach‘s “The Squid and the Whale” calls on him to do just that, and moreover to create believable fraternal chemistry with Jesse Eisenberg while also mastering the film’s tricky tonal balance between self-importance and skewering black comedy. Kline (son of Kevin) achieves all of that brilliantly in a fantastically nuanced, intelligent performance that shows clearly how it’s not just neurotic adults who repress and internalize their pain — it’s a trait that kids can display too. And in this family, it’s almost like an inherited gene.

Lina Leandersson in “Let The Right One In” (2008)
Matt Reeves‘ 2010 “Let Me In” turned out much better than anyone really had a right to expect (and similarly boasted a great central turn from Chloe Moretz), but that shouldn’t distract from the fact that the film was essentially surplus to requirements. Tomas Alfredson had already issued the definitive take on this exceptionally strange love story, with his iteration scripted by the novel’s author John Ajvide Lindqvist. Alfredson’s film is the kind of bone-deep scary that comes from immense melancholy, and 12-year-old Leandersson’s soft features and enormous, sometimes bleeding eyes contain so much sadness and loneliness as to be terrifying. Fragile and feral and playing against an also-terrific Kare Hedebrant as the bullied, gradually bewitched boy, Leandersson’s version of Eli, both a young girl and an ancient vampire, is unforgettable.

Annika Wedderkopp in “The Hunt” (2013)
As a culture, we still cherish a belief in the fundamental goodness and innocence of children. But while Thomas Vinterberg‘s “The Hunt” does not necessarily contradict that conviction and never goes so far as to make little Klara an outright villain, the film does convincingly suggest that children can be motivated by spite and selfishness (and ignorance of the real ramifications) into truly terrible actions. And the 7 year old who embodies all of that in this joltingly discomfiting drama is Annika Wedderkopp, turning in an extraordinary performance of complexity and nuance that works both when she’s showing her bordering-on-inappropriate adoration of Mads Mikkelsen‘s teacher character (Mikkelsen won Cannes Best Actor), and when she’s being calculatedly malicious in revenge for him “spurning” her. It isn’t villainy, but rather concentrated childlike self-centeredness, and Wedderkopp, so pixie-like in outward appearance, makes us realize that children are not blank slates —they are people who can know what they are doing is wrong, and do it anyway.

Douglas Silva in “City of God” (2002)
It seems wrong to single out one single performance from the sprawling tapestry of Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s favela masterpiece. But then again, it would feel wrong not to point to its shockingly authentic child performances as some of the very best of the century. So we’ll choose Silva, who plays the young Li’l Ze (aka Li’l Dice, aka Dadinho) as the younger representative of this incredible ensemble. Like almost all the cast a non-professional, Silva has the unenviable task of portraying the evolution of the terrifying, psychotically violent Li’l Ze, but the callous comfort with which this 13-year old handles a gun, and the big childish grin of glee after he commits his first double-homicide, makes light work of that. What so powerful in Silva’s performance is that he looks as mischievous as a kid playing bang-bang, only in his case the bangs are real bullets: it’s that childish play conflates with murder so easily that makes us understand how violent death is simply a way of life here. 

Yuya Yagira in “Nobody Knows” (2004)
A different kind of captivity but in its way just as complete as that experienced in “Room,” Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s story of four siblings secreted and abandoned in a tiny apartment is definitely another film only to be watched if your mascara is waterproof. And as the eldest child, Yuya Yagira, who won the Cannes Best Actor award from this performance, is the one who will break your heart—negotiating real-life puberty too (the film was shot over 18 months so 12-year-old Yagira’s voice is actually breaking), his character is the one who most fills the vacuum of their thoughtless mother’s absence. Shot in static frames that both contribute to the claustrophobia of the interiors and present the trials, tribulations and boredoms of this makeshift family unit at an unsentimalized remove, “Nobody Knows” is perhaps Kore-eda’s most powerfully affecting, even enraging film, though it should be noted that his facility with child actors is so great that Keiti Ninomiya in “Like Father Like Son” or Koki Maeda in the gorgeous “I Wish” would be worthy additions to this list too.

Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)
Even those few of us not wholly convinced by Benh Zeitlin‘s magic realist post-Katrina fable (and we were indeed only a few: the film scored an outsider Best Picture nomination among multiple accolades) can readily acknowledge the lovely unmannered performance he got from his tiny star. As Hushpuppy, daughter of an ailing, volatile father and child of The Bathtub, an isolated dirt-poor Louisiana community cut off from the rest of the world by a levee, Wallis is magnetic, grounding the film’s floatier tendencies with the total assurance of her performance. ‘Beasts’ (a lot like this week’s similarly named ‘Beasts of No Nation’) is mediated through a child’s eyes, with often horrible events and behaviors taking on magical or awe-inspiring properties. And so it takes a pretty remarkable child performance —natural yet full of imagination and intelligence—to encompass all that, and Zeitlin got one, with Wallis going on to become the youngest-ever Best Actress Oscar nominee at the tender age of 9. 

Tye Sheridan in “Mud” (2012)
Having already impressed in a small role as the middle brother in Terrence Malick‘s “The Tree of Life” the year before, Tye Sheridan broke through in a big way as Ellis in Jeff Nichols‘ 2012 “Mud.” Playing opposite an also-strong Jacob Lofland (in his debut), in a film that circles around a peri-McConnaissance Matthew McConaughy, still Sheridan manages to command the screen effortlessly, never compromising on his character’s brokenness and yet somehow giving him a core of optimism that it hurts to see disappointed. As a film it has its flaws, but even through some of its harder-to-swallow turns, Sheridan remains completely committed and endlessly watchable, and his quick, sly intelligence is one of the many things that sets this superior coming-of-age story well apart from the herd.  

Elle Fanning in “Ginger & Rosa”
Again, it’s possibly surprising that we’re going for this lesser-seen performance from Elle Fanning, when a couple of years before she was more or less the co-lead of Sofia Coppola‘s “Somewhere” but while she was very solid in that film, it was Sally Potter‘s “Ginger and Rosa” that feels more like it tested her as an actress. And it is a test she passes with flying colors, along with co-star Alice Englert; her Ginger is a wonderfully intense turn, that captures all the difficulties and casual cruelties of a friendship between teenage girls. It’s certainly Potter’s most mainstream, accessible film and as a whole it feels like she’s working a little outside her comfort zone with some on-the-nose scripting, but Fanning does a phenomenal job of carrying us along with Ginger’s every mood and thought, and always locates the emotional truth beneath the sometimes awkward dialogue.

Thomas Turgoose in “This Is England” (2006)
One of those child performances (alongside the also-British “The Selfish Giant” from this list) that feels so authentic it’s practically documentary, Turgoose’s problem child Shaun is one of the most indelible characters writer/director Shane Meadows ever created, possibly because he’s partly autobiographical. The diametric opposite of “cute,” Shaun is truculent and difficult, lashing out at schoolmates, while still processing the death of his soldier father in the Falklands War, but he’s also so impressionable it just kills you to watch him be seduced into a toxic ideology. Discovering a surrogate family in a gang of skinheads who adopt him first as a mascot and then eventually as a fully-fledged member, Shaun negotiates his first crush and his hero worship of the virulently right-wing gang leader, Combo (Stephen Graham, electrifying), and Turgoose is simply brilliant, completely un-self-conscious as a boy growing up way too fast just because he wants so desperately to belong.

Ivana Baquero in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
Perhaps the strongest single element of Guillermo Del Toro‘s tremendous fantasy is its sense of balance between the real and the imaginary — entirely encapsulated in that perfectly ambivalent happy/sad ending. And as Ofelia, the girl at the heart of the both of the film’s worlds, Ivana Baquero needs to walk that line constantly. What’s truly surprising is how unshowy a turn it is, as she is both the audience surrogate on these forays into a grotesque and beautiful underworld, and also the protagonist who often makes decisions we ourselves might not. Baquero plays Ofelia as a grave, quiet, courageous child, totally un-self-pitying, which makes it all the more remarkable how much that ending packs an emotional punch: we’ve come to identify and empathize with her so incrementally and yet so completely by the film’s close, that it almost happens without our noticing, because there’s so much else spectacular and weird to see.  

Abigail Breslin & Rory Culkin in “Signs” (2002)
Cheat double entry, and yes, we should probably have Breslin here for her Oscar-nominated titular role in 2006’s breakout hit “Little Miss Sunshine,” but though her part in M Night Shyamalan‘s unjustly disliked “Signs” is tiny, it was immediately striking, and it came four years earlier. Just five at the time of shooting, there’s nothing of the stage-school brat about Breslin: she’s sweet without being sickly and funny without being forced. And a lot of the time she plays opposite Rory Culkin, her wise elder at 12 years old, who announced himself here as possibly the most naturally gifted product of the Culkin child-star farm. There’s a lovely care that exists between the two of them, a sibling chemistry that far more experienced actors might have trouble in accessing. Culkin had already impressed as younger Igby in “Igby Goes Down” and in Kenneth Lonergan‘s “You Can Count on Me” and would do so as a lead in 2004’s “Mean Creek,” but for many of us “Signs” was when we started to take note of both these kids as actors whose range belied their ages. 

Waad Mohammed – “Wadjda” (2013)
Haifaa al Mansour’s movie probably shouldn’t exist at all: a product of the not-exactly-prolific Saudi Arabian film industry, directed by a woman in spite of the restrictions of that society, and reliant on a single, debut actress of just 10 years of age. But Waad Mohammed plays her role so authentically it feels like anything but a performance giving 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 chance to get the bike is to pretend to be a good, obedient student and win a Koran recitation competition. As so the actress is given enem more room to impress, as she plays a young girl pretending to follow the rules so she can ultimately break them, a kind of role-with-a-role, which becomes an elegant, defiantly feminist parable for the making of this film and for that whole society at large.

Alejandro Polanco in “Chop Shop” (2008)
Ramin Bahrani solidified his status as one of the most exciting chroniclers of the marginalized communities of America by following “Man Push Cart” with this devastatingly humane and energetic portrait. Something of a revelation for unfolding like a neo-realist expose of a poverty stricken foreign society yet taking place in the junkyards and scrap heaps of Queens, it’s all anchored by a riveting central performance from Polanco as Ale, the orphan trying to grift and graft a better life for himself and his sister. It can be a tough watch, but Polanco’s unsentimental portrayal of the resourceful Ale means it ultimately becomes uplifting: a film about the resilience and decency that children can sometimes find in themselves even when circumstances rob them of everything else. 

Dakota Fanning in “I Am Sam” (2001)
Ok, so yes, I’m a little conflicted about including this movie. It’s as shameless a tear-jerker as ever required three hankies to sit through. And it boasts that egregious Sean Penn performance as the developmentally disabled Sam, attempting to hang on to custody of his daughter and teaching heartless lawyers, and indeed The System, a little something about life along the way. But the elder Fanning sister’s performance just can’t be denied — she’s only 6 or 7 but is totally convincing and almost frighteningly accomplished in the role of his precocious child. In more recent performances Fanning has developed a kind of faraway dreaminess, but here she seems totally engaged, and if she’s also so ridiculously angelic-looking that our powerful dislike of cute child actors almost comes into play, even our hard hearts are melted as she acts everyone, especially Penn who is Acting-acting, right off the screen.

Jamie Bell in “Billy Elliott” (2000)
With its afterlife as an enduringly popular Broadway show, and fiiting so neatly into the “Full Monty” mold of grim hardscrabble North of England lives being unexpectedly changed by menfolk embracing something less-than-masculine (“…with hilarious results!”) it’s easy to dismiss “Billy Elliot” today. But to do that is not only to deny the pleasures of Stephen Daldry‘s manipulative but effectively sweet film, it’s to overlook the remarkably touching performance by Jamie Bell as the boy ballerina. It’s not a “cool” role, after all, Bell doesn’t get to play a child hitman or an edgy rebel, but he invests Billy with such sincere sweetness that the film becomes affecting where it could easily be affected. Bell’s proven his worth subsequently in a variety of roles, but almost everything he’s done since mines the same innate sensitivity he showed in spades here, in his debut.

Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit” (2010)
Considering their diverse and consistently excellent output, the Coen brothers have surprisingly little form in the juvenile performance stakes (though I’m tempted to included the kid who hula hoops with his neck in “The Hudsucker Proxy” just because.) Then again, maybe their trademark whipcrack dialogue doesn’t really sit easily in the mouths of kids. Which makes Steinfeld’s breakthrough performance here at just 13 years old, rolling the script’s arcane phrases round her mouth like a plug of tobacco, doubly impressive. As the serious-singleminded Mattie Ross, who commissions Rooster Cogburn (a grizzled-er-than-thou Jeff Bridges) to find the men who killed her father, Steinfeld delivers one of the strongest and most memorable child performances in recent memory, in part because it’s seemingly so unadorned (and so refreshingly un-sexualized). Mattie has stolidity beyond her years, but a no-bullshit impatience with the excuses of adults that very much shows her youth, and Steinfeld is perfectly sparky yet straightforward in what was undoubtedly a very challenging role.

Catinka Untaru in “The Fall” (2006)
Saving my personal favorite for last, this near-miraculous performance from the then 9-year old Untaru in Tarsem Singh‘s wildly undervalued “The Fall” is extraordinary for a few reasons. Not only was she very young, and in practically every scene of the film, Untaru also performs in English, which is not her first language throughout. But Singh makes a virtue of that, with the brokenness of her childish phrasing adding layers of charm to an already off-the-charts charming performance, that feels largely improvised (and kudos to Lee Pace in his best-ever role too, for creating such effortless-seeming naturalism in this central relationship). In fact, being as this is a Tarsem film, it’s sold on the splendor of the fantasy sequences and the rich visuals for which he is famous, but the scenes in the film’s “real” world, where little Alexandria sits by the wounded stuntman’s bed in a 1920s hospital and listens to his stories, are where the actual magic happens.

Honorable mentions
There are a few we feel more guilty than usual about not including, because, you know, kids. Byword for “child star” in the post-Macauley Culkin years, Haley Joel Osment gave a great performance in Spielberg‘s “A.I.” but his high watermark is still probably “The Sixth Sense,” which lies outside the time frame of this feature. Chloe Moretz got a mention above for her excellent turn in “Let Me In,” but could also have featured here as the fun, foulmouthed Hit Girl in “Kick-Ass.” At the other end of the scale, Leonard Proxauf and Leonie Beneschin were both uncannily, eerily immaculate in Michael Haneke‘s “The White Ribbon,” while Thomas Doret is a tremendous asset to the Dardenne brothers‘ “The Kid with the Bike.Pearse Gagnon was perfectly cast as the little boy with the potentially terrible destiny in “Looper”; Onata Aprile beautifully unaffected as the sweet child of warring, neglectful parents in “What Maisie Knew“; Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman were genuinely touching amid the Wes Anderson artifice in “Moonrise Kingdom” and Cameron Bright was coolly unknowable in Jonathan Glazer‘s misunderstood “Birth.” Finally, both Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater were impressive in Richard Linklater‘s already beloved experiment in time “Boyhood,” but the nature of that film means they kind of need a whole new category. You almost certainly have other favorites not mentioned here, so do let us know about them in the comments. 

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