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. i love this website. if i had conversations like this with my frieds, they wouldnt be able to keep up. so many actors and movies and opinions flying around. this is why I LOVE SCREENRANT.COM

  2. Whale Rider is missing from the list…

  3. damn, Portmans clearly the popular one here

  4. Actors still acting after their childhood performances put them in the public eye: Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Lindsay Lohan, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Dean Stockwell, Kirsten Dunst, Anna Paquin, Jodie Foster, Jackie Cooper, Jackie Coogan, Keira Knightley. They had or have careers beyond their childhoods. Chloe Grace Moretz, Abigail Breslin, and Dakota Fanning seem to be destined to have it into their soon to be adult lives. Some were flash in the pans but that is growing up magnified by being in the public eye.

    • Um… how can Judy Garland still be acting? She’s DEAD!

      • So is Jackie Coogan and Jackie Cooper. Like I said HAD careers beyond being child stars. Thanks Jimmy.

      • So’s Lindsay Lohan’s acting career…

  5. Freddie Highmore from Finding Neverland should have been here. Can you think of any other 13 year olds that can steal the spotlight from Johny Deep? Sure you mentioned him, but on the list you had the annoying Bailee Madison from Brothers. And what about Ivana Baquero from Pan’s Labarynth? She did win the Goya award for best actress(the mexican equivelancy to the Oscars), the youngest person to do so.

    • freddie is pretty cool, i have some of hid movies on dvd lol

  6. Well now isn’t this funny. The major (angry) complaints were that we didn’t have Tatum O’Neil’s Oscar winning performance from Paper Moon listed – and in a field of 21 child actors, people who’ve taken the time to vote have her 5th from the bottom of the list.

    What the hell?

    Vic

    • I think I know your answer, Vic.

      They all said she was omitted. Not one said she should be no #1 or #2 or #5. I could be wrong, but that’s pretty much what I’m seeing. At first I thought it was due to more recent films such as Kick-Ass, but that doesn’t seem to be the case (the bottom two in the poll goes against the idea- and I thought Bailee Madison from ‘Brothers’ was a good choice)… and just earlier this morning I thought about the late Heather O’ Rourke (Poltergeist).

      So why do all the cries for Tatum so low? Well, some folks are saying they haven’t seen Taxi Driver so they can’t vote Jodie Foster. I’ll then conclude that some haven’t seen Paper Hearts… but most everyone has seen (or aware of) Kick-Ass, Leon (Professional) and The Sixth Sense.

      • In other words, there’s too many fish in the lake.

    • Vic while I don’t believe that Tatums performance should be top ten I will say that the poll only allows us to pick three. Maybe alot of people who thought Tatum should make the top ten only saw her as maybe number 5 so faced with only picking three they had to go with others. Just a thought.

      • Darren, Daniel,

        Good points raised there. Although my take on the level of outrage was that she should have been high on the list.

        Thanks,

        Vic

    • Yeah it was tough to choose only three Vic. I guess I feel her Paper Moon performance is her stand out and as an adult can’t think of a movie she was in. Lindsay Lohan is similar, both are better known for their problems than how good they are as actors. This is a great topic. Now what guy wouldn’t like the kid role in Shane? lol

  7. The list is missing Eli from Let the Right One In. What is the excuse for this>

    • Mikey,

      US movies.

      Vic

    • I personally don’t think he’d belong on this list either. He was fine in the role, but didn’t bring anything special to the role for me. I love the film and it’s one of my favorite foreign films of all time, but he is a product of his environment, more than a child actor who made the film as great as it was, in my opinion. Thoughts?

  8. Wheres Eddie Furlong?
    Lahaaahaaa!
    ^
    Its funny but when I first read this list I also thought about Tatum O’Neil in Paper Moon. But for some reason I had Paper Moon mixed up with The Sting,,,

    Anyone that remembers Paper Moon, has got some miles on them,,,
    8-)

    • LOL 790..eddie furlong…. BAHAHA..

  9. He’s prob not top 10 material, but Furlong did a great job in T2.

    Its too bad he fell into drugs. I sure missed him in T3.

    • i thought he was a little whiney in T2, but all the action and explosions more than made up for it

  10. All the kids in the Valley are whinney.

    Also keep in mind Furlong had never taken acting classes or been in anything before. He was discover by a talent rep at a YMCA,,,

    • He was pretty good in American History X. Didn’t whine either :)

      • he didnt whine cuz he didnt want norton to curbstomp him :)

        • LOL, that’d break more than his voice…

          • yep why do you think he behaved lol

        • Actually he did whine in American History X less than normal, but he still whined in that very annoying ferlong way. He screams at his brother Derrick like a little girl. Remember when he rams his brother in to the garrage door and screams like a little girl at him.

  11. Let us not forget Terry’s kids – Craig Warnock in Time Bandits, Sarah Polley in the Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Jodelle Ferland in Tideland (aMAzing). I guess these are all just American flicks here, though. *shrug*

  12. i totally fell in love with Lindsay Lohan’s performance in The Parent Trap remake. which is why i feel so heartbroken for herand what she has become today.

  13. Loved Time Bandits, good call, Kris!

    Also the cast from the Goonies!!!

    Better watch out for the Goonies,,,
    8-)

    • the gonnie lol..thier muscle is dead(sloth)

  14. Mean creek was dope. And it was filmed in near my hometown

  15. corey feldmen….he needs a comeback.

  16. Mine, in this order:

    Natalie Portman – I doubt anyone will ever trump her being #1 on the list
    Chloe Moretz
    Kirsten Dunst
    Haley Joel Osment
    Henry Thomas
    Mae Whitman

    I need to see Empire of the Sun and Taxi Driver.

  17. 1. Natalie Portman
    2. Christian Bale
    3. Dakota Fanning
    4. Haley Joel Osment
    5. Kirsten Dunst

    I’m surprised Christina Ricci isn’t on the list somewhere.

    • Christina Ricci was a good child actor but not top ten material in my opinion. She’s great though and I loved her in Casper. :)

      • she’s just to bland for my taste.

  18. I would have included Isabelle Fuhrman from Oprhan. A chilling performance like I have rarely seen before…

  19. I think most of the voting is based on the fact that most people haven’t seen half these films. For instance I know alot of people didn’t really get to see Empire of the Sun, but everyone saw Sixth Sense, Kick Ass and The Professional. The voting disappointments me, but doesn’t surprise me. Empire of the Sun is one of Spieldbergs lesser known films. I think Bale is easily the best here and honestly while I think Haley was good in sixth sense I don’t think he was top 10 good. I would put Haley in the top ten based on his actual best performance in pay it forward, but even then he wouldn’t be the top 5 or even top 7. The voting seems to be less about actual best performances and more about films people have seen and films that people liked. Just because you loved the film doesn’t mean the childs performance was the best.

    Personally I wouldn’t put Portman that high up I’d maybe place her at number 5 at best.

    • sorry daniel, i still think that little runts best gig and believable performance was the sixth sense, i know i stand alone on that, ask me if i care though :)

      • Meh Anthony I disagree that it was his best, but I agree with you that it doesn’t matter if you stand alone or not. We all stand alone on our opinions at one point or another no big it’s better than just doing what everyone else does because we are to afraid to be different.

        • daniel, when i saw it in the theaters, he had me so convinced on just how tortured he was emotionally, damn near brought me to tears. not taking away anything from pay it forward, but for its hard for a film character to just grab my emotional strings as his character did in the sixth sense. by the way how ay been feeling, i know you’ve wrote that you’ve been in some pain man, sorry to hear that

  20. Could not agree more with the “dead on” “right between the sights” choice of Portman in “The Professional”.All time favorite.

  21. This list is way too modern. Jackie Coogan in “The Kid”? What about the many Shirley Temple roles?

    • With you there Alex, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Lucas Haas, Joseph-Gordon Levit and Michele Williams are others who got their start as kids. Thanks for the comment. MAXQ1961. Just keep loving movies!!!

  22. Great list .Not taking anything from Natalie Portman; she was great in that film.

    Christian Bale gets my vote he was the main star of Empire of the Sun and carried that film well.

    Besides, the slap he delivers on some poor Japanese soldier’s face was all out hysterical. That would be funny to see, the top best slaps in film(lol).

  23. Thanks for the concern Anthony right now I’m less concerned with my back and more concerned with the god awful tooth pain I have. Still got my wisdom teeth and they are screwing me over now.

    • oh dude, have em yanked man. mine cause me 6k worth of dental bills lol

  24. I never really felt anything from Six sense I didn’t like the film at all and honestly hated Haley because of that film but when I saw Pay it forward I didn’t hate him any more and he actually made me feel something.

  25. Come on Darren, who walked out of Poltergeist talking about Heather ‘O Rourke perfomance?

    That’s over the top,,,

  26. Btw I’m watching Tatum O’Neal right now in “Rescue Me”. ^
    Wow anyone that hasn’t seen “Empire of the Sun”, or “Daxi Driver” is about to be blown away. I remember the first time I watched Taxi Driver it was a disturbing film for me. I think I was around 23 at the time and it was on late night tv. The ending was pretty chilling.
    ^
    Daniel, I would get those pulled asap.
    Have they broke through yet? Feel for ya bro.

    • taxi driver was one of DeNiros finest performances. yea daniel, youre looking at serious dental issues the longer you have them in

  27. 790 I have all four of my wisdoms they have been infected and 3 of the 4 are falling apart missing large chuncks. I’ve never felt pain like this before a few hours ago it hurt so bad it hurt my entire face for two hours I couldn’t even open my eyes and I havnt slept more than 2 hours in 4 days not for lack of trying.

    The problem with getting them removed is I have no insurance and all the clinics I can afford refuse to knock me out and I won’t do dental surgery with just local injection numbness.

  28. Daniel get the local, it won’t be that bad trust me!!!

    Your lucky yours have already come up. Mine were below the gumline. That’s when you need to be knocked out. If there up and infected they will come out easy!!!!

    Get that dome asap!!

    • mine were just starting to break the gumline and push hard against my other teeth, causing me migraines, extreme pain in my jaw. getting knocked out was the only option for that.

  29. 790 one of them is actually bellow the gums. Also there is no way I can be awake during that even the dentist admitted it’s going to hurt like hell even with the numbness. Plus I’m deathly afraid of needles like it’s so bad that I litterally had five doctors and nurses holding me down when I was 20 just so they can give me the shot.

    • Sheet man what are you going to do?