The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

Published 4 years ago by , Updated January 9th, 2011 at 11:53 am,

Natalie Portman Leon The Professional The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

Many directors have spoken openly about the difficulties of working with child actors. Every once in awhile, however, a child actor brings forth a tour de force nobody saw coming and puts those directors to shame. Today, we’ve compiled our ten favorite U.S. performances of all time by a child actor.

There are plenty of fantastic performances to choose from, but few have the power to truly take over a movie. On the other hand, how many times have you cringed at every word spoken by an unseasoned child actor?

Still, experience is irrelevant in this situation. Regardless of the number of Gerber baby food commercials a youngster has starred in, their age dictates they have yet to put ‘the real work in’ as the saying goes. Expectations are almost always low and that is what makes the following performances so powerful. For example, one actor on the list hadn’t acted in his life prior to his role, while another had 32 performances under her belt.

Narrowing any list to ten can be difficult at times. That’s why we’ve also established a few honorable mentions:

Freddie Highmore’s emotional turn in Finding Neverland deserved to make the top ten, but I just couldn’t muster up a spot for him. Rory Culkin (Mean Creek) and McCauley Culkin (The Good Son) both gave their parents something to be proud of in their respective roles. But the following ten performances were unmatched and hinted at bright futures for the young actors responsible – provided they stay(ed) away from the usual problems that have plagued many child stars.

Update from the Editor: We’ve received some great feedback from readers with suggestions on young actors that they say should be on the list, so we’re going to do something unusual – We’ve compiled the suggestions and will offer readers the chance to vote for their three top picks (Leo DiCaprio and Ellen Page are not in the list because they were in their very late teens when the movies folks recommend them for were made). We’ll then update our list based on the results:

[poll id="65"]

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10. Max Records – Where The Wild Things Are

Max Records Where The Wild Things Are The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

A film based on a book for children is a good place for a young actor to shine. But nobody knew what to expect when young Max Records was cast as the main character in Where The Wild Things Are. This rookie actor now had the fate of one of the most beloved children’s books of all time resting on his every move. Between Records and director Spike Jonze, the production was a shot in the dark.

But boy did they pull it off. Jonze created an environment on and off camera that Records could thrive in. The director had all cast and crew members with children use the production as a daycare center of sorts. There were kids on set at all times and it not only let the crew stay focused on their true goal, but Max Records was always in the right mindset.

Because the core of his performance was a result of a well-run set, Records drops a little lower on the list. Still, when the cameras were rolling, Records brought every emotion to the screen from fear to adoration. He gets some serious credit for opening himself up to the cameras and the audience.

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9.Chloe Moretz – Kick-Ass

Chloe Moretz Hit Girl Kick Ass The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

While Kick-Ass didn’t pump the box office with money, nobody left the theater thinking about anybody other than Hit Girl. Maybe it is a testament to the character and not the performance, but the two should go hand-in-hand. The unbelievable charisma of Chloe Moretz was unmatched by any other actor in the film. And we’re talking about a girl who went toe-to-toe with Nic Cage and (literally) Mark Strong.

Instead of resorting to the obvious and ultimately awkward sex appeal of a female hero, Moretz went with a mysterious badass persona. Hit Girl is the reason Kick-Ass lives up to its name. The other characters and the movie’s style are enjoyable on multiple levels, but without Moretz’s turn as Hit Girl the film just doesn’t have the electricity it needed. She left the humor up to her Big Daddy (Nic Cage) and kept a straight face the whole way.

Moretz is definitely a force to be reckoned with, reminding us of a young Jodie Foster (see below) without the overwhelming sexuality. Moretz was fun to watch in (500) Days of Summer and should be even more graceful in Let Me In. Hit Girl was her coming-out character and the world will be able to recognize her because of an off-the-charts charisma that no other female youngster can match today.

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8. Jodie Foster – Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver Jodie Foster The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

Needless to say, Taxi Driver is a pretty hardcore movie. Robert De Niro’s pinpoint performance as Travis Bickle is frighteningly real. Even alone onscreen he needs no help to engage the audience. But the film really hits its stride when a 12-year-old child prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) gets into Bickle’s cab in an attempt to escape her pimp (Harvey Keitel). Foster has been a mesmerizing onscreen persona ever since.

It is Iris who ultimately causes the true divide in Travis Bickle’s mind. She serves as a positive distraction, but also a driving force for his intensity. His disgust for those around him explodes when he realizes how her disgusting pimp has been treating her. Foster is tremendously believable in her role and helps Bickle just as much as he helps her.

It’s no real surprise that Foster was great, as this was already her 33rd role as an actress. At only age 14, she already had more performances than some have in their entire careers. While Taxi Driver was not her most memorable role, it certainly caught the attention of the world and earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

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7. Henry Thomas – E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Henry Thomas E.T. The Extra Terrestrial The 10 Great Performances by a Child ActorWhen people think of E.T.‘s child prodigy, the name Drew Barrymore tends to come up. While she deserves the recognition, E.T. was actually owned by another child actor – Henry Thomas. Spielberg may have been searching for the next great star, but it would be another five years until Empire of the Sun that he jump-started a superstar career. Still, Thomas was everything E.T. needed from its human protagonist, Elliott.

Thomas was forced with the task of acting alongside an awkwardly-shaped alien while treating it like a household pet. But E.T. was not just a dog in alien form. It was up to Thomas to convey the emotion of having a secret you want to share with the world. The movie is about more than fitting in – it is about love, doing the right thing and the protective nature of a young man with his first true friend.

The role didn’t call for a teary-eyed kid who had to steal the show from E.T. Instead, the brilliance of Thomas’ performance is in the subtlety. He knew the movie wasn’t about him as much as an alien’s attempt and fitting in while surviving. Elliott was our only way to truly connect and ask, “What would I do in this situation?

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6. Haley Joel Osment – The Sixth Sense

Haley Joel Osment The Sixth Sense The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

As Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment not only became a household name, but also gave us one of the most abused movies quote of all time. While that famous line from anybody’s mouth would sound just as great, you have to give Osment some credit for his delivery – there’s is now no other real way to say, “I see dead people.

Yet, that line was only one of an entire film. The emotional range of Osment’s performance is what drives the story. He is so afraid that it bleeds through the screen and into our hearts as viewers.

It’s hard to pinpoint if his character reactions are real or if Osment was simply that good. He never really amounted to much, even with a plethora of other great opportunities at a young age. Either way, he brought M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller to life and pumped just enough emotion into it to make it feel like a complete film. He even got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, although I would argue he is the main character.

5. Dakota Fanning – Hounddog

Dakota Fanning Hounddog The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

Hounddog is a film that most people missed, but needs to be seen. Dakota Fanning’s career is filled with childhood hits and evidence of a superstar. It would be difficult to truly bash any of her performances, though I never did see any of the Twilight movies. Hounddog deals with some very serious issues and puts Fanning right in the heart of it all.

The movie follows Lewellen (Fanning) through an unspeakably rough phase in her childhood. She is tormented from many angles, but mostly by the absence of a mother and a struggling relationship with her father. Yet, through the sounds of Elvis Presley’s music, she finds a comfort zone that allows her to grow emotionally. The music is all she has and when she discovers Elvis is coming to town, she will do anything for a ticket.

In her desperation, a group of young boys take advantage of Lewellen and offer a trade – Elvis tickets for a nude performance of his hit single, “Hounddog.” The controversial scene ensues when she is eventually raped and left without a ticket. The emotions run high in Hounddog and it is not for people weak stomachs. However, thanks to Dakota Fanning’s riveting performance, it is a movie worth watching. Without her it could have easily fallen into the depths of mediocrity, but it excels with every moment Fanning is on screen.

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4. Kirsten Dunst – Interview with a Vampire

Interview with a Vampire Kirsten Dunst The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

It’s easy to see how Kirsten Dunst didn’t even make the poster for Interview with a Vampire back in 1994. She was a virtual unknown and the cast sported names like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas, Stephen Rea and Christian Slater. But once the credits rolled, everybody wanted to know who that young girl who sizzled onscreen was (pun intended).

Being forced to star in the between Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise is a difficult task for any actor, especially an 11-year-old. Somehow, Dunst grabbed your attention in all of her scenes. Her intensity and malice were a perfect example of the dark, corrupting side of the vampire affliction. She was a reminder that despite the romanticism of the condition, vampires are stone-cold killers, no matter how young or innocent they may look. That Dunst was even able to go there at such a young age (and so convincingly) is a testament to her accomplishment – and even Roger Ebert praised it as such.  She was creepy, exciting, intense and mature, all while acting alongside two of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

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3. Bailee Madison – Brothers

Bailee Madison Brothers The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

Brothers flew under the radar, even with the talented cast of Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire. But like many of the great child performances, the youngster in the cast had no problem succeeding amongst the bigger names. Maybe it was the unexpected surprise that made her so engaging, but Bailee Madison quite simply stole the entire film from three of the best young actors in Hollywood.

Every scene she is in will tempt you to tears. Her face melts with every emotion and sadness is her best. As a scared child of a scarred war veteran, she puts fear in our eyes as a viewer. This was not just another child actor. Bailee just might be another Meryl Streep, only in a 10-year-old frame.

I challenge anybody to watch the dinner scene and not break down as this innocent-faced little girl pumps attitude in her father’s direction. With every verbal lashing he gives her, she returns it with a 1,000-yard stare and an intensity unmatched by any child actor today.

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2. Christian Bale – Empire of the Sun

Christian Bale Empire of the Sun The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

When we know of actors strictly for their roles as adults, it is easy to forget they were once child stars. Christian Bale is one such actor. Steven Spielberg struck gold with the 12-year-old from Wales and the film is a heart-wrenching tale of triumph at every level. I can’t speak highly enough of Empire of the Sun. Luckily, all I need to discuss is the brilliant performance turned in by a young Christian Bale.

While Spielberg loves working with children, I can’t say he’s brought many young characters to the screen that are as engrossing as Bale was. However, the 1987 war epic isn’t really about war as much as a child caught in the thick of it. Thanks to Bale’s turn as Jamie Graham, everything works: He is emotional, tireless, committed, engaging and pulls on your heart strings with the tenacity of Oscar bait.

It’s almost inhumane that he wasn’t granted an Oscar nomination. Spielberg puts Bale and his character, Jamie, through so much in 152-minutes it is amazing Bale kept his head on straight. He is as mature as any child onscreen and puts most adult actors to shame, including everybody else in Empire of the Sun.

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1. Natalie Portman – The Professional

Natalie Portman Leon The Professional1 The 10 Great Performances by a Child Actor

It’s easy to forget Natalie Portman isn’t even 30 yet. The petite beauty is wise beyond her years and it feels like she’s been in movies a lot longer than 16 years. Her first major role would have been just as brilliant even if she were a seasoned child star. Yet, this was her first “real” role in a movie.

Most of the performances on this list excel because of the maturity of each youngster’s character. Sometimes a role is written that way, while others are the work of a dedicated child actor. Portman’s work in The Professional (a.k.a. Leon) is both. It’s hard to imagine what you’d do in Mathilda’s situation. From the start she can’t stand her family, yet when they are murdered she is overwhelmed with emotion. A typical character might simply mourn the loss of their family simply because it’s the usual thing to do. In Leon, Mathilda doesn’t care about her dead father, sister or mother-in-law. It is the death of an innocent boy, her younger brother, that brings her to tears.

As the film progresses, her balance of vengeance and progressive maturity is fascinating to watch. The fact she is now in the hands of a quasi-mentally-challenged hired assassin makes her resurgence as a lost soul even more powerful. It truly is all the work of Portman, though; she knew her character backwards and forwards, giving her a realistic quality that bleeds through the screen.

Her face contorts with every emotion, her lust for revenge comes through with an unsuspecting humor and her sex appeal is as uncomfortable as it is realistic. She just fits so snug into this character of Mathilda that it’s hard to tell if she is even acting at times – but there is no doubt she portrayed a character that has experienced something way beyond Portman’s real life. It truly was the best child performance I can think of, even to this day.

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That’s our list of great performances from child actors – let us know if you agree, disagree (or if there are any performances you think we missed), by leaving a comment below. Thanks for reading.

Header image by Jennifer L. Rogers

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TAGS: kick ass, where the wild things are

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  1. My favorite performance by a child isn’t on your list. Ricky Schroeder in the champ was phenomenal!!!

    • Just watched it. Film works because Ricky captures our hearts and breaks them. Insulting to leave him off.

  2. I like your choices but one I would have to include is the young actor from “Island on Bird Street”, Jordan Kiziuk. I know he hasn’t done much else but that performance alone deserves recognition. Holocaust stories may be a bit overexposed but this one had a rare quality of reality to it with Jordan showing a terrific range of emotion that I think would compare with Bales performance in “Empire of the Sun”, one of my favorite performances of all time.

  3. Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet

  4. Ricky Shroeder…The Champ……too bad people don’t remember this movie or his performance.

  5. I am pleased to see that both Henry Thomas and Haley Joel Osment made the list (hailing from two of my favorite films.) Though I know I haven’t seen every film out there, including several on this list, it would have been nice to see Joseph Mazzello on here. I really do think he was a terrific child actor, and he deserves at least some recognition.

    But, otherwise, good list.

  6. I absolutely detest the horrid TV soap The Thornbirds, but the performance by Sydney Penny is such a sustained first acting job that I can’t believe she has been over-looked. I know the role is on the pervy side, from that creepy priest’s perspective, but the 12 year old Penny blasts a few of the adults in that series right into amateur hour!

  7. This list should more accurately be called in the LAST 30 years.
    If you have never seen Patty Duke in THE MIRACLE WORKER you have missed the best performance ever by a young actor— by far.

  8. Lukas Haas in Witness, Natalie Wood in 34th Street and others.

  9. Rocky Schroeder? Ha! See Jackie Cooper in the original.

  10. Only American Movies are mentioned here….Victoire Thivisol in the French film Ponette surpasses all

  11. I think Ricky Schroeder is a beat actor forever and Jackie Coogan in the chaplin’s movei the kid

  12. Seriously? I appreciate the Dakota Fanning and Kirsten Dunst references, but somebody has to make a stand for the great over-the-top humorous performances by child actors. I say the red headed dude ( Cody Gregg) from Best in Show takes the cake. If you can recall who he is off the top of your head, consider yourself either a savant or Christopher Guest junkie. Jerod Mixon, Sandlot Kid, Thurman Murman, and the Billy Madison kid are next.

    http://voices.yahoo.com/top-5-funniest-movie-kids-9235293.html?cat=40

  13. patti duke-the miracle worker
    haley osment-the sixth sense
    jackie coogan-the kid
    ivan jandl-the search
    mark lester-oliver
    mary badham-to kill a mockingbird
    hayley mills-hunted
    vincent winter and jon whitley-the little kidnappers.
    jackie cooper and ricky schroeder-the champ
    elliot thomas-ET

    • tatum o neil=paper moon
      jodie foster-taxi driver

  14. sorry, as i look through other lists websites listing what are considered great child performances. I’m reminded of david bradley in kes.
    eamonn owens in the butcher boy
    hugh o connor in lamb
    kirsten dunst in interview with a vampire
    brandon dewilde=shane
    gary guffey-close encomters-at least for the toys coming to life scene.
    and lots of children from foreign movies.

  15. River Phoenix- Stand by me***

  16. Cop and a half! Norman d golden!

  17. Radio flyer, little giants, fresh, richie rich

  18. What about Jamie Bell as Billy Eliot? It’s a fantastic film and Jamie Bell gives a very moving performance.

  19. Asia Butterfield in especially The boy in the striped pyjamas, but pretty much everything he’s done. And he just turned 16.

  20. Brandon de Wilde Shane?

  21. Definitely Natalie Portman in Léon The Professional