Good child actors are something of a rare commodity, with good reason: it’s a lot to expect from a kid. They have to have the intelligence to read, understand, and memorize dialogue. They need the maturity to show up on set and actually put in a day’s work, while other kids their age are playing video games with their friends. And most importantly, they need to be able to convincingly pretend to be someone else. There’s a perfect storm of temperament, talent, and luck that results in a particularly good child actor.
Most of the time, you see kids basically playing a version of themselves. They’re hams and they love attention, so it’s not exactly a huge stretch for them to get in front of the camera and be their big, boisterous selves. But then there are some that can really play with the big boys, so to speak. They hold their own with the adult actors and sometimes even steal the spotlight with their raw talent. So every time you sit through a film with a kid who has a serious case of child actor-itis, think of the people on this list and remember that sometimes, when the stars align, kids actually can turn in tour-de-force performances.
Christina Ricci (Addams Family Values)
Most child actors really struggle with any comedy other than juvenile, in-your-face humor. That’s why Christina Ricci, the adolescent queen of sardonic wit, is such a breath of fresh air. She elevates deadpan delivery to an art form in both of the Addams Family movies, but especially in Addams Family Values, where she’s given more to work with.
Can you even imagine how horrible it would have been if there was another little girl playing Wednesday? How cringe-inducingly awful some of her lines would have been? They truly lucked out with Ricci, who was seemingly born to inhabit the role of everyone’s favorite macabre princess. You only have to think of the scene at camp where Wednesday, cast as Pocahontas, sets fire to the First Thanksgiving to realize the sheer genius that girl brought to the table.
Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot)
Jamie Bell pulls double-duty in this film, which makes his performance even more impressive. He not only has to pull off the acting role of Billy Elliot, an angry, rough-around-the-edges boy who feels alienated from his family, but he also has to be a good enough dancer that a ballet teacher would notice his raw talent and take him under her wing.
Bell is a revelation in this role, believable as the tough kid raised by miners, totally unwilling to express his emotions. But we can also sense his confusion and vulnerability that lies just below the surface. It’s this duality that elevates his performance into something that any adult actor would be proud of.
Ivana Baquero (Pan's Labyrinth)
Pan’s Labyrinth, for the five or ten of you out there who haven’t seen it, is a dark fairy tale about a bookish young girl during the Spanish Civil War. Surrounded by harsh reality, she finds herself escaping deeper into a world of fantasy than she ever intended. It’s a pretty intense film, which requires a pretty intense young actress to star in it. Luckily, Ivana Baquero is more than up to the task.
Regardless of your own personal interpretation of the story (whether or not the events of the film actually occur), it’s undeniable that the role of Ofelia requires an unusually complex and nuanced performance. Like some of the other actors on this list, Baquero carries the entire film squarely on her shoulders. Sure, we’ve got impressive costumes and make-up design, but Ofelia needs to be the heart and soul of the story. Baquero pulls it off, creating a warm and sympathetic character in the middle of Guillermo del Toro’s special brand of madness.
Tom Holland (The Impossible)
Tom Holland is another talented young actor who got his big break with the role of Billy Elliot, this time in the popular West End musical. Two months after leaving his stage debut, he booked a leading role in the film The Impossible. He brings equal parts maturity and vulnerability to the character of Thomas, a boy trying to survive the Boxing Day Tsunami in Thailand and find his family.
Holland has great chemistry with Naomi Watts as his mother, but he also shows real range and star quality in the scenes where he is alone. His performance when he is separated from his wounded mother in the hospital is reminiscent of a young Christian Bale, which assures me that Holland has a bright future ahead of him.
Kirsten Dunst (Interview With A Vampire)
Age is one of the hardest things to pull off convincingly, which is why actors are frequently cast as younger rather than older. They can remember being a certain age and access that frame of reference to inform their performance. A younger actor, on the other hand, hasn’t experienced that part of their lives yet, and will most likely have a harder time in the role. So when you ask a 12-year-old actress to play a vampire who’s been around for a century…well, that’s not something just anyone can do.
Kirsten Dunst knocks it out of the park in Interview with the Vampire. She perfectly portrays an adult woman in the body of a child, and her chemistry with co-stars Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise would put to shame actresses three times her age. You can see her playing a woman who is both frustrated by the fact that she can’t age yet still uses an appearance of wide-eyed innocence to her advantage, and it’s honestly some of the best work Dunst has ever done.
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Rest of the (now grown up) kids at the source. Decent list overall, but still SMH at the obvious whiteness of this list. How can they leave out other talented POCs like my flawless Queen Quvenzhane?!
Do you agree/disagree with the list? What are your fave child performances, ONTD?