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The Best Child Performances in Movie History — IndieWire Critics Survey

The incredible kids of "The Florida Project" inspire our panel of critics to name the greatest pint-sized performances of all time.

"The Florida Project"

“The Florida Project”

A24

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: In honor of “The Florida Project,” which has just started its platform release across the country, what is the greatest child performance in a film?

Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), The Guardian, Vanity Fair

“Paper Moon”

I can agonize over this question or I can go at this Malcolm Gladwell “Blink”-style. My answer is Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon.” She’s just so funny and tough, which of course makes the performance all the more heartbreaking. She won the freaking Oscar at age 10 for this and I’d really love to give a more deep cut response, but why screw around? Paper Moon is a perfect film and she is the lynchpin.

Special shout-out, though, to an actor by the name of John Allen. Allen had small parts throughout his life in films like “Mo’ Money” and “Stewardess School,” and guest shots on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Remington Steele.” But in 1961 he appeared, uncredited, as James Cagney and Arlene Francis pain-in-the-ass son Tommy in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece “One, Two, Three.” “One, Two, Three” probably has more jokes-per-capita in any film that is shot realistically, i.e. isn’t “zany” like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or “Airplane!” or Woody Allen’s “Love and Death” or “Sleeper.” It is Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s masterpiece, zinger-wise. The cast is packed with talent, but young John Allen has a throwaway line-reading that can match any of the big set-ups. It’s early in the film, and Cagney is starting a madcap day, which includes bossing around his heel-clicking ex-Nazi assistant and leering after his secretary mit der umlauts. He gets a call from the wife, who puts the son, who doesn’t want to listen to authority and hands the phone back to mom. “Here. Your husband wants to talk to you.” On paper, it’s nothing. On screen it kills.

Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), East Coast Editor of The Tracking Board

“Paper Moon”

I generally have so many problems with child actors that it’s often hard to tell how much of it is acting and how much of it is them just being cute kids and people thinking that requires some kind of skill. (Case in point: Qhvenzhane Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Still undecided on “The Florida Project.”) That said, I was extremely moved by Jacob Tremblay in “Room” to the point where it was obvious he and Brie Larson had something really special together … but best of all time? I’d probably have to go with Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon”– there was a good reason she won that Oscar.”

(I’d also watch out for Will Tilston who delivers a similar tear-jerking performance in next week’s “Goodbye Christopher Robin” as Freddie Highmore did in “Finding Neverland.”)

Kyle Turner (@TyleKurner), Contributor for Paste Magazine

“Paper Moon”

I don’t really like children in general, and perhaps even less in film, unless they’re acting like precocious quasi-adults. So I love Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon.”

Hunter Harris (@hunteryharris), Vulture

“Moonlight”

Alex Hibbert in “Moonlight.” Still! The scene where he’s wrestling with the little Kevin, when he’s talking to Teresa at dinner, when he asks if Juan is a drug dealer. A lot of child performances are adorable and ostentatious, but his was really haunting — he seemed preternaturally vulnerable and sometimes uncertain, but not necessarily sad. It’s such a singular performance in a movie full of great ones.

Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Freelance

“Atonement”

Saoirse Ronan in “Atonement.” Briony Tallis is an incredibly complex part that demands a child actor convey turbulent emotions well beyond her years. Ronan coolly nails Briony’s determination, driven by jealousy, resentment and confusion, not only with her face but also her body language. Her every step is filled with purpose and each one of her gazes mean something. I can’t imagine any other child actor in her place who can maintain such a villainous look in her eyes while observing Robbie and Cecilia from the window. Ronan simply leaves me speechless. It’s no surprise that she’s grown into one of the finest, most accomplished actors of her generation.

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Vice, Harper’s Bazaar, The Mary Sue, Heard Tell, Birth.Movies.Death, Thrillist

“The Babadook”

There have been many, many great child performances over the years. But the one that immediately springs to mind, especially with Halloween looming, is Noah Wiseman in “The Babadook.” One of my biggest gripes about child performances is that they too often act older than what they are. But Samuel (Wiseman) is unapologetically an unruly, whiny six-year-old who needs his single mother (Essie Davis) to pour him a bowl of cereal for him. It’s not until she becomes possessed when he tries to assume some sense of responsibility for the two of them–for the sake of his love for her. And even then he asks the soul of his mother to help him release the evil spirit inside her, because he knows he can’t do it alone because he’s just a child. Wiseman’s performance is simple yet shattering when you least expect it. He embodies Samuel’s playful innocence just as he much he does his desperation and fear–without compromising authenticity.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today

“Bicycle Thieves”

Perhaps my absolute #1 of all time, against stiff competition from many fine young performers, is Enzo Staiola (9 years old), so moving and funny, both, as Bruno in Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 “Bicycle Thieves.” How old should we go with this child-actor category, anyway? All the way up to 17 years + 364 days? Maybe not. Using the approximate age of the kids in The Florida Project (who are terrific, by the way) as a guide, let’s stick to around 10 (or so), since that age poses significant challenges for both actor and director, requiring emotional precocity of the former and fine-tuned intuition of the latter. Haley Joel Osment, so magnificent in the “The Sixth Sense” (1999), is therefore right on the edge, as he was 11 when the film was released (so maybe 10 when they filmed). I would definitely include him in a list of great child actors.

I would also include Subir Banerjee (8 years old) in “Pather Panchali,” Anna Paquin (same age as Osment) in “The Piano” (1993), Quvenzhané Wallis (9) in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012) and Jacob Tremblay (9) in “Room” (2015). Other favorites include Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly (6 and 12) in “Forbidden Games” (1952), Rory Culkin (same age as Osment and Paquin) in “You Can Count on Me” (2000), Jonathan Chang (9) in “Yi Yi” (2000), Kolya Spiridonov (10) in “The Italian” and Abigail Breslin (10) in “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006). Additional top choices, such as “The 400 Blows” (1959), “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962), “Stand by Me” (1986), “Landscape in the Mist” (1988), “Mud” (2012) and “Moonlight” (2016) feature late tweens or young teens, so beyond my self-imposed cutoff. But the cinema has a grand tradition of showcasing young talent, and I am sure I have left off many names that will call out to me later, reproachfully lamenting their exclusion from the list.

Max Weiss (@maxthegirl), Baltimore magazine

“The Sixth Sense”

The first name that popped into my head was Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” He didn’t have to be cute or wise-cracking or obnoxiously precocious. What he had to be was permanently haunted, in a way that made him world-weary, existentially sad, and isolated—but also gave him uncommon reserves of empathy. We don’t usually ask 11-year-old actors to convey such complex and sophisticated emotions. He did, marvelously—and carried the film. (Oh, he was great in “A.I.,” too!)

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

“World of Tomorrow”

Don Hertzfeldt’s then four-year-old niece didn’t even know that she was in his magnificent short (not unlike how Tom Cruise didn’t know he was in “Interview with the Vampire” until it came out), but little Winona Mae’s surreptitiously recorded voice performance is as memorable and full of life as any that has ever been committed to screen. Having said that, I want to shout out Mina Mohammad Khani in Jafar Panahi’s “The Mirror” and the irrepressible Catherine Demongeot in “Zazie dans le Métro.”

Richard Brody (@TNYFrontrow), The New Yorker

"The 400 Blows" Criterion Collection

“The 400 Blows”

Zenith International/Photofest

There are so many extraordinary performances by children that it’s as hard, and as impossible, to call one the greatest as it is with adults. Is the four-year-old Victoire Thivisol, with her miraculous performance in “Ponette,” in the same category as the six-year-old Jackie Coogan in “The Kid,” the eight-year-old John Adames in “Gloria,” the nine-year-old Christopher Olsen in “Bigger Than Life,” the eleven-year-old Elle Fanning in “Somewhere,” the twelve-ish Edmund Moeschke in “Germany Year Zero,” the fourteen-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud in “The 400 Blows,” the fifteen-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire in “À Nos Amours,” the sixteen-year-old Rony Clanton in “The Cool World,” or the dynamic duo of Koji Shitara and Masahiko Shimazu in “Good Morning”? Here I’ll stop myself and back up—only one of these films, all among the best ever, changed the course of history, so the question answers itself.

Ray Pride (@raypride), Newcity, Movie City News

“The Spirit of the Beehive”

Ana Torrent, shattering in “The Spirit of the Beehive.” Curiosity, compassion.  Victoire Thivisol in Jacques Doillon’s “Ponette”: so distressingly alive, great and gravid with grief. David Bradley in “Kes.” Jean-Pierre Leaud in “400 Blows,” at seaside, eyes frozen forever, startled by the future, the next moment, no further moment. Aleksey Kravchenko in “Come and See”: what a child’s eyes ought never see.

But one performance I’ve watched several times recently in both awe and horror: Billy Mumy in the “It’s a Good Life” episode of “Twilight Zone.” An adult world cowers at the demands of Anthony, a six-year-old sociopath, one with mental powers but no nuclear devices. “Wish it to the cornfield!” he demands. Such conviction. Such prescience!

Manuela Lazic (@manilazic), Freelance for Little White Lies

“Stand By Me”

Children in films can often deliver astonishingly natural performances because of the lack of self-consciousness that characterises the younger, simpler years of life. Some can be anxious and it shows, but the greatest film performances of all time and all ages are those of unbridled kids. The best example of raw and youthful acting might be Jean-Pierre Léaud’s breakthrough role in François Truffaut’s 1959 film “The 400 Blows,” but what first springs to my mind is River Phoenix in Rob Reiner’s 1986 feature “Stand by Me,” perhaps because I saw it for the first time recently. While Léaud at 14 already had traces of the captivating oddness of a Parisian man that he would later fully use, Phoenix at 15 was both childish and deeply troubling, his eyes narrow and sparkling as though he had seen the whole world already. This fascinating and chilling moodiness recalls a more recent child performance that never fails to amaze me: Cameron Bright as young Sean in Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 masterpiece “Birth.” Like Phoenix, his attitude is at once that of a boy and a man, but in this case for the particular reason that he claims to be the reincarnation of Anna’s (Nicole Kidman) grownup dead husband. The comfortable slouchiness of his shoulders, the confidence of his hands as he reaches for her face and kisses her, and the steadiness of his gaze drive Kidman and the audience to believe the impossible. Later, his understated despair adds compassion to the many confusing and contradictory feelings that this character, via this actor, has made us and Anna go through.

E. Oliver Whitney (@cinemabite), Screencrush.com

“Beasts of the Southern Wild”

It’s hard to pick just one, but two of my favorites are Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and Ana Torrent in “The Spirit of the Beehive.” And I can’t not mention the non-actor local kids in “City of God” – the gang initiation scene is totally devastating.

Christian Blauvelt (@Ctblauvelt), BBC Culture

“The Black Stallion”

Child actors’ performances often deserve far greater recognition than they are accorded by critics or The Academy. Earlier this year I wrote a polemic for BBC Culture arguing that the Oscars should reintroduce their Academy Juvenile Award, a smaller version of the Oscar statuette with which they used to honor child actors from 1935 to 1961. Even when a child actor’s performance is deemed worthy of Oscar attention today the demands of their schooling usually mean they can’t compete with adult actors free to go through the byzantine paces of the awards season campaign circuit. So rarely does a child get nominated these days in a competitive category.

And looking further back into film history, the performances of child actors can be overlooked because some critics and fellow actors think that acting is easier as a child because you don’t have to move past self-doubt or aren’t afraid of criticism; or it’s because they haven’t been trained, even though the commitment children can give their fantasy worlds and imaginary friends is as real as anything in The Method; or that kids can only play themselves; or that kids can only mug for the camera and be cute. All of that is untrue. Look at Douglas Silva as the psychotic pre-teen gangster in “City of God” (film-makers outside the US have always grasped the potential of child actors far more than their American counterparts), or Roddy McDowall in “How Green Was My Valley,” or Jackie Cooper in “The Champ,” or Haley Joel Osment in “AI: Artificial Intelligence.” Even Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone,” in that brilliant scene in the church with his possibly murderous neighbor Roberts Blossom, gets to project a feeling of being depressed at the holidays that’s something adults think is only for them.

But my pick for the greatest child performance ever is that of Kelly Reno in “The Black Stallion.” It’s a master class in the art of understatement – he never underlines any moment, never goes out of his way to tug at your heartstrings, never tries to be performatively cute. He’s the star of the film, but Reno instinctively knows to serve the story first and not make it all about him. A shame that he ultimately abandoned acting. But perhaps it’s for the best, since the one director who could have done magical things with Reno’s great stone face was winding down his career: Robert Bresson.

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “The Florida Project”

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