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Best Child-Actor Performances On Film (Survey)

by Tambay A. Obenson
June 17, 2011 8:37 AM
23 Comments
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Earlier today, I attended a press screening of a beautiful yet tragic South African drama titled Life, Above All - a film we've covered a bit on S&A, including a review from MsWOO who saw it the London Film Festival last year (read her thoughts HERE).

The film, directed by Oliver Schmitz, opens in limited release in the USA, on July 15th, so, those of you in New York and LA will be able to check it out for yourselves.

I'll be writing my own review of the film soon, but I was immediately struck by an aspect of it that inspired this post. Specifically, the performance by the star of the film, 13-year old Khomotso Manyaka (although she was likely 11 years old when the film was actually shot in 2009). She carries the entire film; I don't think there's a single scene in the almost 2 hour movie that she isn't in. So its success depends almost entirely on her performance, and whether you believe her or not. I did. It's a solid performance for a kid, given the weight she's asked to carry here!

Several others agree with me apparently, as the film reportedly received a 10-minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and was shortlisted by the Academy Awards committee in the Best Foreign Feature Film category; it also received acclaim at the Toronto Film Festival, Dubai Film Festival, and others. And it won 6 Awards at the South African Film And Television Awards (SAFTA’s), including Best Lead Actress in A Feature Film by the 13 year-old star.

And what's even more impressive about all this is that, this was her very first film!!

So, it all got me thinking... child actors. I had to think hard to remember the last time I watched a film that centered almost entirely around a kid, told from their POV... and that's made for adults. What can I say? I guess most of the films I watch tell stories primarily about the lives of adults, with children as peripheral characters; and it's not necessarily a conscious thing; it just is. I'm an adult, so I'm drawn to adult stories.

But maybe you folks can help me out here, and school me on some titles. My question for you all is, in light of all that I've said, give me your short lists of films with stories that revolve around children (of any color), in which, from your POV, the child actors give really good performances that define the film.

As for what age I'm thinking of when I use the word "children," let's go with pre-teens; So, 12 and under.

Have at it! And by the way, if you haven't seen it yet, here's the trailer for Life, Above All:

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23 Comments

  • Holden Pike | March 26, 2014 10:56 AMReply

    Plenty of great performances have been mentioned, but some of my favorites not yet named include Jean-Pierre Leaud in "The 400 Blows", Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver", Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon", Natalie Wood in "Miracle on 34th Street", Everlyn Sampi (as well as her two even younger co-stars) in "Rabbit-Proof Fence", Giuseppe Cristiano in "I'm Not Scared", and more recently Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward in "Moonrise Kingdom".

  • Lauren | November 29, 2011 3:50 PMReply

    Elijah Wood in "Radio Flyer", "The Adventures of Huck Finn", "Forever Young", and "The War"; Dakota Fanning in "War of The Worlds" (*ducks rocks*); Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense" and "AI: Artificial Intelligence"; Josh Hutcherson in "Bridge to Terebithia", "Little Manhattan", and "RV"; Annasophia Robb in "Bridge to Terebithia" and "Because of Winn Dixie"; Joey Mazzelo in "Radio Flyer" and "Jurassic Park"; and Jaden Smith in "Karate Kid". All great young actors, some of whom have grown up to become fabulous adult actors (Elijah Wood, Dakota Fanning, Josh Hutcherson) -- they're all awesome. :)

  • thighmaster | June 22, 2011 9:49 AMReply

    Keisha Castle-Hughes in WHALE RIDER

  • DAX | June 20, 2011 6:40 AMReply

    Leonardo Dicaprio in "What's eating Gilbert Grape" or "a Boys Life"

  • Freedom Girl | June 20, 2011 1:28 AMReply

    Desi Arnez Hines II as Tre in Boyz in the Hood. I remain disappointed to this day that he grew up into Cuba Gooding jnr :)

  • Freedom Girl | June 20, 2011 1:02 AMReply

    Garry Cadenat as Jose in Suger Cane Alley. Brilliant movie. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtNKSJwkFSw&feature=related

  • tolly devlin | June 19, 2011 8:56 AMReply

    Garry Cadenant gave a very good performance in Euzahn Palcy's Sugar Cane Alley. Sean Nelson was alsoo pretty good in the " Every Mother's Son" episode of Homicide & in the movie in which he played a young chess whiz & drug runner. Speaking of chess the kid from Searching for Bobby Fischer was pretty good as was his co-star Laurence Fishburne some years earlier in Cornbread, Earl and Me.

  • LarisA | June 19, 2011 5:33 AMReply

    Joel Osment in "Six sense"
    Jaden smith ( with Will Smith) I think it's calledBeatiful Life
    Natalee Portman in "Professional"

  • TJ | June 18, 2011 12:46 PMReply

    Hands down, Dakota Fanning in "I Am Sam"- still baffles me to this day that she didn't get a Best Supporting Actress nod from the academy. Hell, most adult actors can't keep up with Sean Penn

  • Aquila | June 18, 2011 12:38 PMReply

    I've always admired Victoire Thivisol's work in PONETTE.

  • K | June 18, 2011 6:39 AMReply

    Fresh, Crooklyn, The Fall, & Eve's Bayou are on my list as well.

    Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson. She carried her own and honestly stole the movie from both Anthony Mackie & Ryan Gosling.

    Renel Brown, a great young actress, is in Rain with CCH Pounder.

    The child actors in Slumdog Millionaire made that film come alive.

    Shirley Temple is a must mention. No matter how much her films & acting don't sit well with me, she was a great child actress.


    Two young actors who play the younger versions of main characters:
    - Young Forrest Gump gave the movie it's heart.
    - Francis Capra as young Calogero did the same.

  • Geneva Girl | June 18, 2011 5:13 AMReply

    I'm not sure if Dakota Fanning's performance in The Secret Life of Bees counts. Was she too old to make the cut off. She out acted everyone else in the movie.

    I ditto: Keke Palmer, Tatum O'Neal and Haley Joel Osment. I've got to add Jaden Smith in The Karate Kid.

  • R.J. | June 18, 2011 4:02 AMReply

    So many of my favorites (Jurnee Smollett, Keke Palmer, Zelda Harris, Sean Nelson, Natalie Portman and Linda Manz) have been mentioned already, but I recently saw "Super 8" and was really impressed by the child actors. The film has some issues but those kids are pitch-perfect.

    Ivana Baquero was brilliant in Pan's Labyrinth, as was Anna Paquin in The Piano. Lindsay Lohan's performance in The Parent Trap was also pretty impressive, it'd be a tricky feat for many adult actors to pull off that performance let alone an 11 year old. Linda Blair also deserves props for The Exorcist due to the sheer fact that she made that movie without suffering major psychological scarring.

    I'm sure there are more, but I can't think of any more at this moment.

  • Steven Flores | June 18, 2011 3:25 AMReply

    For me, Linda Manz in "Days of Heaven", Ana Torrent in "The Spirit of the Beehive", Jena Malone in "Bastard Out of Carolina", Natalie Portman in "Leon", and Hunter McCracken in "The Tree of Life".

  • JMac | June 18, 2011 1:14 AMReply

    Gotta cosign with BluTopaz. Sean Nelson's performance in Fresh wins hands down. The last scene in that movie always punches me in the gut .The whole movie you watch this kid navigating so easily around his bleak, dangerous, adult world but it's not until the end that you really realize, he's just a child like any other. Darn, gonna hafta watch that tonight.

  • Cherish | June 17, 2011 12:53 PMReply

    Haley Joel Osment. That kid is child prodigy. His performances in The Sixth Sense, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence were amazing. Haunting performances.

    Journeee Smollet In Eve's Bayou also gave a great performance. She is very underrated.

  • gomezlb | June 17, 2011 12:44 PMReply

    I just recently saw a movie that had some striking child performances, "johnny Mad Dog"

  • KikiDee | June 17, 2011 12:11 PMReply

    I really liked

    Keke Palmer in "Akeelah and the Bee"

    Jesika Reynolds in "Holiday Heart". (That's one of my favorite movies.)

    Jurnee Smollett in "Eve's Bayou" (a performance which apparently most of us loved).

    Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon" (she was the youngest female/child to win an Oscar for her role in this film); and

    Haley Joel Osment in "Sixth Sense".

  • fromAtoS | June 17, 2011 12:06 PMReply

    Ana Torrent in "Cria Cuervos." Easily the best child performance. She's amazing in "Spirit of the Beehive" as well.

  • BluTopaz | June 17, 2011 9:39 AMReply

    Ditto on Zelda Harris! And she also played the best female character in a Spike Lee film, imo

    Sean Nelson from Fresh but not sure how old he was when shooting but he had such an old soul vibe about him--On the DVD the director said he was inspired by European films about kids living in adult worlds

    Journee Smollet from Eve's Bayou, she played so well alongside industry veterans

    The little Romanian girl from Tarsem's The Fall-she learned English while shooting but you'd never know it-she's so charming, funny and sad in this beautiful film

  • Anwar | June 17, 2011 9:29 AMReply

    Zelda Harris was the first to come to my mind. She completely carried the film and she was only 8 when it was filmed and 9 when it was released. A stunningly nuanced performance.

  • Vanessa | June 17, 2011 9:20 AMReply

    I liked the young teen from "Ballast" JimMyron Ross. I really liked that movie! umm I'll think of some more..

    Anyways, I wanted to say that I really want to see this movie!! This young girl looks like a gem just from trailer. I love that image of her from the film. It says a million words.

  • Sham | June 17, 2011 8:47 AMReply

    Zelda Harris from Crooklyn?

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