Hey all, this week’s question comes from reader Rob Grizzly:
“In honor of the delightful debut of Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap remake (which turns 20 this summer), what movie contains your favorite child actor performance? (To exclude teenagers, we’ll use the ages of 12 or younger.)”
I’ve written before about my possibly unearned affection for Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, still one of the most viscerally affecting horror movies I’ve ever seen. (Sixteen years later, I continue to get legitimately nervous if I see series villain Samara lurking on a paused TV or computer screen.) As it happens, The Ring actually has two pretty good kid actor performances in its quiver: Daveigh Chase—who also played Lilo in Lilo & Stitch—as the young Samara, and David Dorfman as Naomi Watts’ preternaturally creepy kid Aidan. I’m going to give the win here to Dorfman (who apparently went on to employ his wise-beyond-his-years persona as an actual child prodigy in the legal field), if only because his delivery of the film’s twist line—a worried, exasperated “You weren’t supposed to help her!”—so effectively punctures its fake feel-good ending, and sends it tumbling down toward a horror climax that still makes me look askance at static-filled screens.
I like Sean Astin in The Goonies because he manages the tough feat (even for adult actors) of embodying a character who’s rousing and inspiring to his rag-tag group of friends without being cloying about it. It’s a similar embodiment he went for 15 years later in The Lord Of The Rings, bringing the same earnestness to Middle-earth he brought to the Goon Docks. Mikey takes his friends on an epic adventure, but it’s all in service of saving their homes from demolition, a storybook stand-in for the tough business of changes you face growing up. Astin’s “this is our time” speech down in the cave, where he implores his friends to reject Troy’s bucket and remember that their priorities are not the adults’ priorities, might be one of the best speeches ever delivered by a child.
For a long time I had a rule that no movie is good if a kid has to act in it. This was probably a bit over-stated, but it certainly led to some good arguments. It was the 2008 Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In that forced me to relent. While the movie would still be rightfully upheld as one of the premiere post-millennial horror films even without them, the two central performances, by 11-year-olds Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, give the movie its beating heart. A lot of child actor performances flit between melancholy and innocence, but Leandersson’s, in particular, has a complexity to it, with shades of menace and self-loathing and tenderness, even as she bleeds from the eyes and commits countless gruesome murders. By the end of the movie, even decapitation feels sweet, and that’s a testament to the feeling she and Hedebrant bring to their roles.
I think it’s pretty much impossible to not love Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. The “beast it” scene alone—where she tears a crab apart, sucks it dry, and stands on the dinner table flexing and shrieking while her neighbors cheer her on—should be enough to endear most anyone with a beating heart. But there’s more to Hushpuppy than the usual leading-kid blend of wide-eyed wonder and charming exuberance, both of which come through effortlessly in her narration. She also has to symbolize the entire ethos of the film, and to that end, Wallis provides Hushpuppy with immense toughness and will, a resiliency built from growing up in this water-logged bayou with an alcoholic, sometimes abusive father. It’s always struck me as a very different kind of child performance and definitely one worthy of earning Wallis the title of youngest ever Best Actress nominee.
The problem with child actors is that even though kids are predisposed to make-believe, paying one to play pretend in front of a camera is inherently inorganic and unnatural, a disconnect that makes young actors such prime fodder for horror movies. Or robots: There’s a stroke of genius in casting an established school-age star at the center of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the sci-fi Pinocchio parable that marked the third act in Haley Joel Osment’s reign as Hollywood’s top tot. The movie shapes itself around Osment’s precocious affect, forming a cinematic uncanny valley out of the preternatural poise and beyond-his-years mannerisms that the actor made plain in earlier roles. But he meets A.I. halfway, in David’s glassy stare and the guilelessness with which he traverses A.I.’s dystopian landscape, a creation in search of a creator and a son in search of his mother. Ultimately, Osment grants the character’s greatest wish: In spite of all the artificiality, he turns David into a real boy.
It’s now common knowledge that Millie Bobby Brown is a superb young actor, thanks to her time on the mega-hit Stranger Things. But some of us knew this performer was capable of greatness already, thanks to the short-lived and flawed but fascinating 2014 BBC series Intruders. The show was about a secret society of beings who figured out how to inhabit the bodies of others, in an ongoing quest for a sort of immortality, only it was even more oblique and distant than that description conveys. But at the center of it was a powerhouse performance from Brown, all of 9 years old when it began filming, who portrayed an older man’s spirit contained within the vessel of a young girl—who was still in there as well, it should be mentioned—and managed to see all those layers of depth and nuance with gravitas and wit. It was a hell of a thing to watch, and when she first appeared in the trailer for Stranger Things, that’s when I knew the Netflix show would be worth watching
I’m not ashamed to admit that I openly wept during the end credits of Room, and a big part of what I think makes that film more than the elevated Lifetime movie some cold-hearted critics dismissed it as is Jacob Tremblay’s performance as Jack, a young boy who’s literally seeing the world for the first time. The mix of fear and awe on Tremblay’s face when Jack—who’s just escaped the one-room shack where he and his mother have been imprisoned for his entire life—sees the sky for the first time would be poignant on any actor’s face, but coming from an 8-year-old boy it’s downright heartbreaking (and impressive). Tremblay is so shellshocked and traumatized in Room that it was almost a relief to see him as a happy, normal little boy on the press circuit, another testament to the quality of Tremblay’s performance in that film.