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 have a bucket of mouth wash, ambosal, Ora jel ,kanka, salt water, vicoden and amoxacilian lol. Hopefully that will keep me ok until I can find a place that will ko me and in a way I can afford.

    • I had a major tooth infection this year. Nearly killed me – turned into a full body infection.

      Only thing worse was the $1,400 bill to have it root canaled. Death might have been preferable :-P

      • daniel, go to TJ :)

        • wow kofi, yea my dental issues cuz of my wisdom teeth were two root canals, 3 fillings, 2 crowns

  2. Where is Soirse Ronan on the list? She was exceptional in Atonement. I would have strangled Brione if given the chance.

  3. Huckleberry Fox in Terms of Endearment gave an outstanding performance. His presence is understated in the movie, but the one scene that he performs brilliantly in was the one where Debra Winger is in the hospital and he goes to visit her with his older brother. His reaction to seeing her in that hospital bed gets me every time…I don’t think he says one word,all he does is cry.

  4. CHLOE MORETZ!!!!!!

  5. Natalie Portman’s performance in Leon was fine, but it’s also as over-rated as the film itself. A child *only* mourning one of their family is convienient for the story because it manipulates the audience into sympathising with Matilda both because her family are so unpleasant AND because she loses them, by dividing the family into neat stereotypes of good and evil – just like every other character in that artsified popcorn action movie. Natalie’s acting in that sense seems better than it is because she’s the only actor lucky enough to be playing something vaguely resembling a human being.

    The other problem with this list is the focus on recent movies. Love for something prior to 1976 would be nice, it’s not like children didn’t act in movies prior to that point. Paper Moon, Night Of The Hunter, To Kill A Mockingbird…

  6. Nice list, but I have one complaint: Bailee Madison beat out Haley Joel Osment?!

  7. How could you leave out Leonardo diCaprio in What’s eating Gilbert Grape? You do realise he won an Oscar for that brilliant performance as a retarded kid don’t you?

    • He was nominated but didn’t win it, Etrigan. Tommy Lee Jones got the Oscar that year for The Fugitive.

  8. I’d like to speak up for Daniel Radcliffe, who has grown up on screen as the lead actor in the Harry Potter movie series. The 7th film is about to be released this November and his 8th film, next year. As lead actor in the highest grossing movie series of all time, Radcliffe has won numerous awards as a child actor over the course of filming these beloved movies. You have asked for my opion and I think he should be named as one of the top ten.

    • I would like to point out that Daniel Radcliffe although not a bad actor only won awards because he was put into a part that was sure to go somewhere. People loved the Harry Potter books and the directors of the first 3 movies were all brilliant. Nearly anybody in his position would have gotten awards. Good acting is not being the main charecter in a good movie its about playing your part well whether the movie is good or not.

      I would also like to say that my favourite actor is Annasophia Robb.

  9. The above photo used for Dakota Fanning’s “Hounddog” is not from that movie: it’s from her movie “Push” and the character is Cassie.

    I have issues with “Hounddog,” but I love the acting by the main adults and find Dakota’s performance astounding. BTW, the issues I have with this movie most definitely do not include the rape scene, which I thought was powerful, deeply moving, and very well done. Anyway, “Hounddog” is still my favorite Dakota Fanning performance although Cassie, of all the wonderful and memorable characters Dakota has put on the screen, is the character I personally like the most.

    As for the attacks on “Hounddog,” I admire what Dakota is reported to have said: “‘It’s not really happening,’ Fanning said of a rape. ‘It’s a movie, and it’s called acting. I’m not going through anything. Cody and Isabelle aren’t going through anything, their characters are.’”
    (quote taken from the post “Dakota Fanning: ‘It’s called acting’” at the site movies.commongate.com Jan 26, 2007 by terry.)

  10. Great list. I’ve added this to StumbleUpon, if you don’t mind.

    By the way, there are also Justin Henry (Kramer vs. Kramer, 8yo) and Brandon De Wilde (Shane, almost 12yo), both of which were Oscar nominated.

  11. Aw, there’s so many great child performances in older movies not mentioned here. Still, this is a good batch. Here’s some of my favs:

    http://www.best5everything.com/best5ListPages/performanceskids22431.php

  12. I think Billy Elliot deserves a nod.

  13. the performance of Natalie Portman in ”The Prpfessional” is not so good. I Mean, there are four really good shots (10-29, 21-09, 55,19, 06-05), and the rest is good but let’s not confuse action with character. This does not mean it’s bad, because many players were even nominated for the Oscar for short but brilliant performances, like Robert Duvall and William Hurt, for example. As I was saying, it’s a great performance and deserved the top 1 of this site is the 1st to appear in my google search on that subjetc (if the 1st then it is most important).

  14. okay, i have an issue. i’m glad Natalie in Leon is #1 and all(kiss ass for that), but i don’t appreciate you taking this wallpaper of mine, that i made years ago. i have no idea how you found it unless you wen to NP.com and took it from the archives, or if maybe it came up randomly on google. I’m flatter none the less of my picture being on a website, but you don’t take a wallpaper someone and then crop the makers name off. that is crap. what are yawl assh***s?

    • JenR,

      I can assure you we wouldn’t strip out the attribution on an image – if it looks that way it’s because that’s how we found it. I’ve emailed you regarding it.

      Vic

    • I am sure Vic has emailed you, but know that it came up in a basic Google search of images. I apologize for no attribution. I assure you it was not intentional and I am no hole. It came in exactly how I posted it.

      • Mike,

        It’s been taken care of.

        Vic

  15. I agree with Andrew, Haley Joel was brilliant in A.I.
    Christian Bale, Empire of the sun.
    Barrett Oliver, D.A.R.Y.L.
    Who could chose between them?

  16. Sorry, but Johnnie Depp won the oscar for What’s Eating Gilbert, Leonardo rightly deserved it for best supporting, unfortunately, he got left out, something I could never understand.

    • Eh? He wasn’t even nominated for that, Geoff!

      • Depp, that is.

  17. Whoever played the role of child Anakin would have been panned, Jake was excellent. Trouble is, everyone wanted a mini Darth Vader, but he was made, not born.

  18. I stand corrected, Leonardo was nomminated, Johnny Depp wasn’t.
    He should have won it, and Depp should have been.

    • Can’t argue with that!

  19. Haley Joel in A.I., was brilliant, so was the film, from beginning to the end, a couple may agree with that.
    Maligned Jake Lloyd. Freddie Highmore, Thomas Sangster, Barrett Oliver, Johnathon Landis, if they had been the same age of course, could have played Anakin, and been panned. No-one could play that role and not be panned by the fans of Star Wars. Don’t blame Jake, he was brilliant, the perception that he was no Darth Vader in the making ruined everything. What did everyone expect, A mini Darth Vader. Not to be, Darth Vader was made, not born, he was the young Anakin, the rebellious whiny Nobody Understands Me teenager being seduced by the Dark Side was spot on too, the of course, becomming Darth at the end of the prequal trilogy. In context, Jake was faultless in the role. So shoot me, thats my opinion.

  20. I also suggest Ben Tibber in I Am David(2003) The intensly emotional story and the guarded performance of Ben was a perfect combination

  21. About Rafael’s post, it has some good scenes, like in cut’s version the last time before they discuss it put those glasses and also one where she’s a little disoriented after being beaten by her sister (not in same time, but a little before). But really there are few scenes. I have no problem in analyzing performances acidic or crying, since I have intimacy with it, which does not occur. Highlight to the scene of her sucking a lollipop while watching his father arguing with the police, and the scene looking for her father with that look of”?” while still sucking a lollipop.

  22. *they last discuss before it put those glasses

  23. Shirley Temple…enough said.

  24. It seems that young people are able to better portray characters on screen as their imagination allow them to feel the emotions their character feels better than any adult actor will ever be able to.

  25. Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” featured an admirable performance by Zelda Harris; Equally, Jurnee Smollett’s turn in “Eves Bayou” gave a portrait of a fantastically talented child actress.It’s such a shame these children were not recognised for their exceptional talents. Also, Isabelle Fuhrman who played “Esther” in “Orphan” completely stole every scene – she was absolutely amazing
    While I would have included Zelda, Jurnee and Isabelle in my top ten, I have to agree that Natalie’s acting in “The Professional” was truely a superior turn and can not be contested for the number one spot.

    I Would love to know what child TV actors you would recognise as top ten/five performances?

  26. christian bale is lot better than that girl a lot a lot

  27. when i got answer

  28. Shirley Temple is still and always will be the best child performers of all time. Everyone else will come in second.

  29. I ABSOLUTELY CANNOT BELIEVE that Brad Renfro is not on this top ten list. His performance in The Client was one of the greatest child actor performances of all time. I mean seriously, that kid stole the show from Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones for God’s sakes. That poor kid never got any recognition. RIP Brad.