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The Best American Actors Under 30 — IndieWire Critics Survey

From Kiersey Clemons to Lakeith Stanfield and Jennifer Lawrence, these are the talented actors taking American cinema into the future.

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: Who is the best American actor / actress under 30, and why?

Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Freelance for /Film, Vulture and Thrillist

“Miss Stevens”

I’ve never felt so fully attuned to a young actor than I have to Timmy Chalamet, who – even before breakthroughs in “Lady Bird” and “Call Me By Your Name” – was impressive as hell in smaller projects like “Homeland” and “Miss Stevens.” I knew right away that he was insanely and specifically talented, could recognize that raw talent, and can’t wait to see it flourish beyond his current constraints.

Kristen Lopez (@Journeys_Film), Freelance for Culturess, The Young Folks

Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons in "Hearts Beat Loud"

“Hearts Beat Loud”

Gunpowder & Sky

In this landscape of increased diversity and a desire to elevate different voices I wanted to find an actor or actress who wasn’t the go-to person for this type of question (sorry, Timothee Chalamet!). I went with Kiersey Clemons, an actress who immediately enchanted me with her quirky, quiet performance in 2016’s “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.” Clemons had fantastic comedic timing with an infectious smile that caused her to draw attention away from her white co-stars. You’re drawn to her ebullience and that’s something felt in her latest role as Sam Fisher in “Hearts Beat Loud.”

Director Brett Haley calls her a ray of sunshine and it’s so true. You want to see her succeed because she conveys the beauty of life. This isn’t to say Clemons just plays positive, even in something like the mediocre “Flatliners” remake, she controls the audience with a sensitivity that’s unparalleled. And she has an amazingly beautiful voice to boot! I can see Clemons ushering in the new wave of young actresses who are open and forthright about Hollywood’s flaws and seek to rectify them.

Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute

Brett Haley on set of "Hearts Beat Loud"

Brett Haley on set of “Hearts Beat Loud”

Jon Pack

It is a very exciting time for young actors, but, if you’re making me choose just one (!!!), I’m going with Kiersey Clemons. This terrific singer, actress has proven her on camera integrity and appeal in an impressive variety of projects, with tent pole appearances already slated. I can’t wait to see what her future holds and how she’ll continue to soar.

Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse

“The Only Living Boy in New York”

In terms of people whose careers are (hopefully!) on the cusp of taking off in a big, big way, let’s declare this the summer of Kiersey Clemons. Her status has risen rapidly over the past couple of years, and she most recently co-starred in Brett Haley’s stupendously charming “Hearts Beat Loud,” an affecting tale about a father and daughter who bond through forming a band the summer before said daughter goes to college. Clemons exudes a warm, lived-in chemistry with anyone she’s onscreen with for any amount of time, and she gets to demonstrate her genuine musical chops.

Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM), Solzy at the Movies


“Set It Up”


If I have to choose just one of them, it’s Zoey Deutch. The daughter of Howard Deutch and Lea Thompson, Zoey first jumped onto my radar when she was starring in the 2011-12 series, “Ringer.”  Since then, I’ve watched her deliver some great performances in “Everybody Wants Some!,” “Why Him?,” “Flower,” “The Year of Spectacular Men,” and most recently, the delightful “Set It Up.”  It’s her work that we’ve seen on screen in 2018 alone that shows just how talented she is at her craft.

Zoey is growing up in front of our eyes but she’s a talent to watch for years to come.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG), Wicked Horror, Birth.Movies.Death., Vague Visages

before i fall movie zoey deutch

“Before I Fall”

There are plenty of wonderful young actors doing great work right now but I’ve been a cheerleader for Zoey Deutch for many years, and seeing her finally get her due is hugely satisfying. After making her mark in utter dross like “Dirty Grandpa” and “Why Him?,” playing second fiddle to Zac Efron and James Franco, finally she’s getting her moment to shine. Deutch is simply incapable of being bad in anything. Even Vampire Academy somehow was a good look for her.

After breaking out in a big way in “Everybody Wants Some!!” she opted for smaller projects, like YA adaptation “Before I Fall” and indie weirdie “Flower.” There’s no superhero spandex in this lady’s future (though the offers are surely flooding in). Just last month her Netflix rom-com “Set It Up” hit and it encapsulates everything that’s so wonderful about Deutch as a performer. She’s warm, she’s fearless, she’s a brilliant physical comedian and she throws herself full force into every role she gets, even if it’s just the one-dimensional girlfriend. This kid is going to be big by being small, and that’s highly commendable.

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

“The Beguiled”

Even more than her older sister, Dakota, Elle Fanning (born in 1998) has shown – in roles as diverse as those in “Super 8” (2011), “Maleficent” (2014), “The Neon Demon” (2016), “20th Century Women” (2016), “The Beguiled” (2017) and “Mary Shelley” (2018) – an ability to combine wit, emotional intensity and sharp intelligence in a heady mix. And even though her bracing performances make it difficult to watch anyone but her, Fanning is such a good on-screen listener that she always manages to share the cinematic limelight with her costars. Generous and charismatic, both, she is a force to watch in years to come.

Christina Radish (@ChristinaRadish), Collider

Elsie Fisher appears in I Think We're Alone Now</i> by Reed Morano, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Eighth Grade”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

One of the absolute best and most memorable performances I’ve seen this year is from 15-year-old Elsie Fisher, who carries “Eighth Grade” with an ease of someone far beyond her teenage years, making her one to watch and someone who could have a very promising career as an actress. It’s the feature directorial debut of comedian Bo Burnham, with a cast that was unknown to me, so I had no idea what to expect from the film or anyone in it, and was blown away by the authenticity and honesty of Fisher, in a way that ensures you will not forget it or her.

Fisher had just finished eighth grade herself, prior to shooting the film, and infuses her character Kayla with an understanding of what the experience is like, in a way that feels so true that, at times, it’s almost painful to watch. Thankfully, it is not a story that’s vicious and cruel and filled with mean girls. It’s less a story of a girl who’s bullied and more a story of someone who’s ignored and just wants to connect with her peers. There are moments of comedy that had me laughing out loud, moments of such awkwardness that I just wanted to give her a hug, and heartbreaking moments that brought me to tears, including one heartfelt scene between Kayla and her father that was absolutely everything. Elsie Fisher is just so great in “Eighth Grade” that I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark), LaneyGossip.com

“Certain Women”

I’m cheating and I DO NOT CARE because LILY GLADSTONE is a REVELATION. I first saw her in Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women”, which premiered at Sundance in 2016 when Gladstone would have been around 29, so THIS COUNTS. I will FIGHT for my right to name Lily Gladstone. Her performance as a lonely ranch hand who attempts to form a relationship with a townie lawyer (Kristen Stewart) is quiet devastation and has stayed with me ever since I saw that movie two whole years ago. You can feel every ounce of her stifled passion and yearning and I stayed for the credits specifically to learn Gladstone’s name.

I got excited about her and I’ve been excited about her ever since, but I’ve also worried about her because Lily Gladstone is Native American, and the opportunities that should be there for a Sundance breakout actress are not necessarily there for her. In the years since “Certain Women”, she has done small roles, often playing unnamed characters, and her best opportunity since is the DC Comics/Vertigo adaptation of “Scalped”, which pilot has not yet been picked up. There are other young actors I’ve been excited about, such as Zoey Deutch, but I have never worried about Zoey Deutch. She’ll be fine. She will have no shortage of opportunities to shine. Lily Gladstone, however, might not get those kinds of opportunities. But she makes the most out of what she does get, taking those small roles and blowing them out of the water. She is just incredible to watch, and American cinema can only be strengthened by giving her the kind of work that challenges her to rise. Because she will. She’s that kind of actor. If you give Lily Gladstone something to chew on, she will make a whole meal.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

“Madeline’s Madeline”

Not a big fan of poking around to check actors’ birthdates, but there’s no need to do so with the performer I’ve got in mind. Helena Howard, who’s at the center of Josephine Decker’s film “Madeline’s Madeline,” is—on the basis of that performance, in the only movie she’s been in to date—the most thrillingly surprising and inventive young actor I’ve seen in a very long time; she’s in the exalted category of teen actors who’ve expanded the very idea of acting, as does the classic-modern actor whose performance style is most similar to Howard’s, Gena Rowlands. That Howard should act in that high-wire mode while still a teen-ager is astonishing and makes me deeply impatient to see the work she’ll do in other movies.

Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews), 812filmreviews

“Madeline’s Madeline”

I’m choosing someone whose first film has not even been widely released yet; Helena Howard. Sometimes, every once in a while, you see an actor or actress and you wonder how the world hasn’t been blown apart by their talent yet. A month ago, I piled into the Music Box Theater for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and watched “Madeline’s Madeline.” I never forgot it.

Partly because the film was bonkers, but also because of Howard. Howard as an unstable teen in an unstable film is like a supernova. Her emotional range, from damaged child to fawned over muse, in “Madeline’s Madeline” is gut wrenching and frightening, and was to be expected of someone far more advanced in years and accolades. My feeling of seeing Howard stretch her talents across the screen must have been what it was like for the first the guy who saw Mickey Mantle play. The ability is there. And in that dark movie palace known as the Music Box, where magic had spontaneously combusted so many times before, Howard made it happen again. Howard will be a star.

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Chicago Reader, Indyweek

“Under the Silver Lake”

At 29, Riley Keough has already worked with Andrea Arnold, So Yong Kim, Lars von Trier, Steven Soderbergh, Barry Levinson, David Robert Mitchell, Trey Edward Shults, and George Miller. That’s some serious Tom-Cruise-in-the-90s director-shopping. And it’s working. She has impeccable taste for a meaty role, and she makes every film she’s in better by rising to its visionary’s specific challenge.

Jesse Hassenger (@rockmarooned), The A.V. Club/Freelance

“Mistress America”

I’ll stump for Lola Kirke on the basis of “Mistress America” and “Gemini,” two movies I love that depend on exactly the kind of performance I tend to love: one that doesn’t necessarily trade in big emotional gestures, but rather digs so far into a recognizable character type (in these movies, lonely college freshman and beleaguered hipster assistant) that it redefines those types for me. Tracy in “Mistress America” somehow managing to be simultaneously stubborn, easily led, hilarious, and kind of a jerk made me rethink a lot of freshman-year stereotypes. And I’m not sure Kirke’s role in Gemini is all that funny on the page, but there’s something about her semi-competent rogue investigation of her friend and boss’s murder that’s both amusing and, paradoxically, gives her assistant character a strange dignity. These are parts that probably don’t seem that hard to play, which is exactly why I think they probably are. Plus, based on her work in “Gone Girl” and “American Made,” I suspect Kirke has a pretty decent range, too.


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