The 20 Best Performances by Child Actors.

Not always do great child actors translate to great adult actors. Still, in move history, there are tons of performances with young actors that steal the show. In this list of what I think are the twenty best performances from child actors, we have names that become big Oscar winners and there are names which you’ve never heard off and probably never will. Still, they leave a legacy and a performance that will never be forgotten. Check out the list.

– I’m pathetic for not including Anna Paquin and her apparently amazing performance in “The Piano” (1993). It’s because I haven’t seen it yet.
– I selected performances of actors under “legal age” (18 years old…or else you’d see a lot of Winona Ryder) to be a part of this list.

the-impossible-image1020. Tom Holland as Lucas in “The Impossible” (2012) – The most recent performance on the entire list gets our number 20 spot. Tom Holland plays one of Naomi Watts’ and Ewan McGregor’s kids as the family gets lost and separated around Bali when the infamous tsunami hits them. When watching the trailer of “The Impossible” you don’t really see Lucas as a big character. It seems like he plays one of the little boys who are distressed and hurt, with noting else to offer. However, Holland carries the entire movie on his shoulders, just as much as the big movie stars that were included in the production. He is natural and shows a full range of tormented emotion. Truly one of the greatest performances of last year.

mary-badham-to-kill-a-mocki19. Mary Badham as Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1962) – Everybody remembers reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” in high school. If you just pretended that you read it, I’m sure online summaries were available to you. But for those who can stand black-and-white movies, watching this gem of a classic was truly delightful. Mary Badham plays Scout in the timeless classic. Scout is the daughter of Atticus Finch (Oscar winner Gregory Peck), a small town lawyers whose family life and reputation is turned upside down when he decides to defend a coloured man. Just like the book, the film is told through the eyes of the little girl. Badham embodies Scout with greatness. Though I wouldn’t say she was a strong, emotional force, Badham’s innocent presence was just what the character needed. The industry agreed, when they gave Mary Badham a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. 

elliottet18. Henry Thomas as Elliot in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) – Over time, Henery Thomas’ performance in “E.T.” has become just as iconic as the extra-terrestrial himself. Playing a lonely boy living in a suburban town, Elliot finds friendship in the strangest form: in an alien! Though the movie may seem a little to silly to a lot of people, “E..T” comes together as a family classic with strong themes presented in a ultra cinematic way, thanks to Mr. Spielberg. But everything about it wouldn’t work without a strong, convincing lead to mesh it all together. That was found in Henry Thomas. Who can forget Thomas’ red hoodie and bicycle? And the…”E.T. phooooone hoooomee” scene.

tumblr_m6pzygDyY31qiy5m2o1_r1_128017. Alakina Mann as Anne Stewart in “The Others” (2001) – Alakina Mann as Anne Steewart isn’t the most terrifying role a child actor can get. However, it’s a well written performance, that actually holds a lot of the movie together. She plays the estranged daughter of Nicole Kidman’s Grace, living in a strange house, when they begin hearing and seeing strange things that they conclude are some sort of “ghost” or “the others”. The great thing about Mann’s performance is that she delivers more then what is asked of her. From line delivery to facial expressions, Mann is second best to such a powerhouse actress like Nicole Kidman. And that’s saying something for a little girl. Her performance goes down in horror movie history as a recently iconic and a little bit terrifying.

The-Boy-in-the-Striped-Pajamas16. Asa Butterfield as Bruno in “The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas” (2008) – Butterfield is an upcoming actor that recent starred as “Hugo” in Martin Scorsese’s Best Picture nominated film. What a lot of people don’t remember is Butterfield’s heartfelt performance in the World War II drama “The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas”. He carries the entire picture and as I adult, I will admit that he did break my heart in the film. The movie was shocking and touching in the same time. He plays Bruno, the son of a German General who makes friends with a little boy in a concentration camp. Not knowing any better, Bruno’s innocence is the reason for his tragic fate. Butterfield’s resume is growing quickly, and I’m excited to see what he does next.

tumblr_m5u3x879HD1r73hggo1_50015. Jack Wild as The Artful Dodger in “Oliver!” (1968) – Jack Wild was sixteen when he appeared in the Broadway film treatment of Charles Dicken’s “Oliver!” on the big screen in 1968. Wild’s height and baby face worked effectively as he played the conniving pickpocket, the The Artful Dodger, in the classic movie musical. He charmed audiences and especially Hollywood, garnering the film one of its two Academy Award nominations for acting for his supporting performance. Wild is convincing as Dodger, and doesn’t only give the audience comic relief but also a twist of goon, hardly portrayed by children on the big screen.

Matilda14. Mara Wilson as Matilda in “Matilda” (1996) – It’s a shame that Mara Wilson quit show business in such a young age. The actress, best known for her role in this Roald Dahl classic, appeared in numerous hit family movies including “A Simple Wish” (1997) and “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993). Still, Wilson will always be remembered by playing the iconic role of Matilda. Matilda, a positive girl has nothing going for her – her family abuses her and her school has many forms of bullies (including the famous role of the evil Principal “Ms. Turnball” played by Pam Ferris). But her luck changes when Matilda learns that she has magical powers (apart from being the child genius that she is), that will ultimately lift herself out of her bad situations. Wilson leads the cast with her star making performance with such charisma that it’s such a shame that she didn’t continue with big roles after the 90s. While we feel bad that Wilson is now on the Hollywood down-low, but many of us 90s kids have this classic to rekindle her magic whenever we see fit.

MSDADFA EC00613. Christina Ricci as Wednesday Adams in “Addams Family Values” (1993) – This, I would consider is one of those rare sequels that go miles for beyond the original. On the top of my head I can only think of “Spider-Man 2” (2004), because “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) is quite debatable as compared to the first one. One of the biggest reasons why, “Addams Family Values” is good is because of how charming Christina Ricci’s performance is as the very strange Wednesday. We revisit the demented home of the Addams Family as Uncile Fester (Christopher Lloyd) gets married to the devilish new nanny, Debbie (Joan Cusak was robbed of an Oscar nomination!). As a part of Debbie’s evil plan, she persuades Mortishia and Gomez (Anjelica Houston and Raul Julia) to send their children (who is on to her) to a happy, perky summer camp. This gives us reason to see Ricci work her magic. She is freaky, weird and demented in all the right ways. Plus, her comedic timing is terrific, something a lot of adult comedians even lack sometimes. She is natural at it too! The fact that she isn’t trying too hard is really what makes her Wednesday Addams work so well, and is generally a fine comic performance. It’s still on of her best.

billy_elliot_jamie_bell_512. Jamie Bell as Billy Elliot in “Billy Elliot” (2000) – One reason why I commend Jamie Bell’s performance in 2000’s “Billy Elliot” is because I find it so ballsy. Imagine, a young boy playing a kid who wants to be a ballet dancer? You don’t see that every day. That’s what makes the film (and Jamie Bell) so special. It’s a performance that took a lot of guts. Even though it really is a role that a lot of young actors should vie to get. In the end, it all turns out well for Billy, the film is a great emotional flick that lays as one of the iconic films earlier this century. Bell headlines it, and does a splendid job embodying this character. I’m yet to see another film where he will shine brighter then what he did for this role. 

river-phoenix-GC11. River Phoenix as Chris Chambers in “Stand by Me” (1986) – “Stand By Me” always touches a soft spot in me. It’s not only a story about growing up and friendship, but it’s also reminiscent of the greatness River Phoenix could have been if he did not die early in his life. But the real reason why I feel so close to the film (and River’s lead performance) is because the film was the first movie my parents watched together on their first date. I know, cheesy cheesy stuff but still. The great title tune is accompanied by a strong performance by the young River who plays Chris Chambers, on a journey with his trop to find the dead body of their missing friend. River’s performance is really strong, despite his age, and is probably his most iconic. 

14034880_ori10. Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister in “Home Alone” (1990) – Macaulay Culkin was one of the biggest stars of the 1990s. When “Home Alone” hit theatres around Christmas 1990, his popularity exploded. He later became one of Michael Jackson’s closest buddies and long time beaux of Mila Kunis (well for awhile). But before all the scandals, Macaulay delivered our tenth best performance by a child actor EVER in the family classic “Home Alone”. Based on the title, “Home Alone” is just what it is. Kevin (Culkin) is left alone at home when his family forgets him after a big fight with his mother and Kevin is sent to sleep in the attic. As they rush back from all the way across the country, Kevin must protect his house from two robbers that are trying to enter! The magic of “Home Alone” is in it’s last hour, as Kevin comes up with wild tricks and outsmarts his enemies. The performance demanded more then being cute though, because “Home Alone” needed a skilled child actor to play it’s more emotional part of the story line. This part playing on the Christmas theme of it all, and it made it more then a family movie, but also a holiday gem. (Random note: doesn’t he look like a young Sam Evans from “Glee”? *NERD ALERT SORRY*).

Judy-Garland-as-Dorothy-the-wizard-of-oz-6159542-600-4509. Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) – “The Wizard of Oz” is by far one of the greatest movies ever made. Imagine if 20th Century Fox had allowed MGM to borrow megastar Shirley Temple to play Dorothy Gale? Then Judy Garland would never have had this tremendous opportunity. Especially the opportunity to sing the song “Over the Rainbow” (which is still the song associated to her most, today). Dorothy (Garland), is a little girl from Kansas, who gets swopped away into the colourful and magical land of Oz. Eager to go home, Dorothy must now go on a musical adventure on the Yellow Brick Road to ask the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz to send her back where she belongs. Garland plays Dorothy like she was born to play the role. She is cute, naive and emotional. Not to mention, her voice never sounded greater! Garland will always be remembered for this role because it truly is one of cinemas greatest treasures.

lindsay_lohan_parent_trap8. Lindsay Lohan as Hallie Parker / Annie James in “The Parent Trap” (1998) – This is one of those “What The Hell Happened to Her Moments!?”. When Lindsay Lohan started out as the cute red-head kid in Hollywood, everyone thought she had a bright future ahead. When she did “Mean Girls” in 2004, every one thought she’d be the next Winona Ryder. And they were right…except Lohan wasted her time even more. At least Ryder produced a handful of cinematic performances that I would consider wonderful before her career went downhill. But this girl did it in a whole new level. Lohan became target to Hollywood rumour mills and scandals. She became a tabloid queen, which isn’t really a good thing. But I’ll always have the fondest memories of her. Especially in this motion picture that really is one of my favourites. Playing twins Hallie and Annie, who recently discover each other in Summer Camp, the two exchange lives in hopes to reconnect their divorced parents (Dennis Quiad and Natasha Richardson). There is something so special about this film, and it’s hard to deny Lohan as having done one of the best child performances ever. She plays the same person, but so different in the same time. Get it? It’s hard to play twins, and she does it spot on! The film is also heartwarming and completely entertaining. This (and Lindsay too) will always be part of my childhood. No matter what.

dc-What-s-Eating-Gilbert-Grape-leonardo-dicaprio-15238937-1152-6567. Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnie Grape in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993) – This boy however, did it all right. I cheated a bit, cause I think DiCaprio was nineteen when he played Arnie, Johnny Depp’s autistic brother in this film. But he’s such a convincing thirteen year old that I won’t even bother checking and I’ll just include him (HAHA LAZY BONES). DiCaprio (now Martin Scorsese’s new muse), earned his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in this challenging role. I’m not trying to say anything offensive, but it’s very hard to capture the mentally disabled. A lot of actor’s who try to do it just come off as truly bland and none-truthful or just plane out horrible. However, the great thing about DiCaprio Arnie Grape is that he understood his craft in such a young age, and delivered a stellar performance that is natural and memorable. No wonder the boy took Hollywood by storm! True, raw talent. 

Taxi Driver 36. Jodi Foster as Iris in “Taxi Driver” (1976) – Future two time Oscar winner (and for Best Actress in a Leading Role too!) Jodie Foster, got her humble beginnings in a Martin Scorsese picture, co-starring Robert De Niro. In a Oscar nominated performance, Foster plays Iris, a teen prostitute who soon catches the concerned interest of De Niro’s powerhouse Travis. Travis and Iris soon becomes friends, and she later becomes his motive in seeking revenge on the dangerous characters of New York night life. This, I would say is one of the most natural performances for a child actress in the 1970s. She played it cool, sassy and  a little bit “poser-ish”, if that’s the proper word to use. Foster’s Iris seemed like she was hiding a lot, and the layer that she built for her character was close to perfection. Her scenes in the film are memorable, and her appearance in the finale was a perfect conclusion to Iris’ story.

Interview-with-the-Vampire-kirsten-dunst-96217_1500_9835. Kirsten Dunst as Claudia in “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) -Though I wouldn’t say Kirsten Dunst as Claudia is the scariest child performance to be caught on camera (wait till #4 on the list), she was definitely the freakiest thing in this Neil Jordan flick. Dunst scared the living day lights out of me, as the little vampire girl Claudia. Claudia, who feels like she is cursed, was turned into a vampire by Louis (Brad Pitt) and Lestat (Tom Cruise), after finding her in a rotting house hit by the plague in the 1800s. Claudia soon becomes restless with her fate and becomes truly terrifying in nature. She becomes deadly, irrational (HA!) and if she were human…borderline personality disorder. Not to mention dysfunctional…that’s saying a lot for a vampire movie and a vampire character. This stays in the top five of Dunst’s best work, and lays as one of the most under-apprecated supporting turns in recent movie history. Plus it blows her cutesy performance in “Little Women” (1994) out of the water times a million times.  

exorcist-evilgirl4. Linda Blair as Regan in “The Exorcist” (1973) -What else can we say about Regan? SHE IS HORROR MOVIES. And she was the doorway to any great performances in actual GOOD horror movies. This is definitely THE MOST terrifying performance by any child in any movie EVER. Though I personally didn’t get too scared of her, millions of people did. Till today, some of my friends can’t watch the movie completely or even think about it when they’re in bed at night. The creepy thing is that this is the work of a little girl named Linda Blair. Blair captures possession so spot on, that people were so scared of her that I’m sure it affected her career after. Okay, I take it back. I’ll stop writing about this now…I’m getting shivers. And! She’s laughing at me in the picture too. 

large-sixth-sense-blu-ray63. Haley Joel Osment as Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense” (1999) – Before M. Night started annoying and disappointing everyone (even I was shocked to know he was beyond the disaster known as “After Earth”) he unleashed a splendid performance from a young actor named Haley Joel Osment. Osment has produced a number of great performances before his fifteen minutes ended, but this kid really struck gold when he appeared in “The Sixth Sense” back in 1999. Playing Cole Sear, an estranged school boy, Bruce Willis’ Dr. Malcolm Crowe is investigating why this young one has been acting so weird. This soon comes to a shock, when Crowe realizes that Cole isn’t depressed with his life but because he can see dead people and is living in a world where he’s always scared. But come on! I didn’t have to explain that to you. “The Sixth Sense” and its story is told in that one iconic scene: “I SEE DEAD PEOPLE.”. Now you remember it? Good. It’s impossible to forget this film and this performance. Osment was so good that he earned an Oscar nomination for his performance! Too bad he never saw it, must’ve been a ghost. But he sure did out shine seasoned actor Bruce Willis. 

600full-empire-of-the-sun-screenshot.jpg2. Christian Bale as Jim Graham in “Empire of the Sun” (1987) -I  actually only watched this film recently. But this is the entire reason why I came up with the list in the first place. If you want greater detail on what I think about Christian Bale’s performance as Jim Graham, scroll down a little and you’ll see my quick review for it. But let’s recap a little. Bale plays Graham, a boy who is separated from him parents for the entire duration of World War II, during the Japanese occupation in China. Bale is so impressive in this picture that it’s not a shock at all that he became a future megastar and Oscar winner. He broke my heart and played rounds around a lot of adult performances that came out in the 1980s. He was magnificent and a true masterclass actor in such a young age. A little fact: this is the second Spielberg director child performance to make it on the list. This gives me hope that he’ll work with a young cast again. Maybe re-make something fun like “Newsies” or something. Don’t see it happen, but a guy can wish right? 

The-400-blows-4251. Jean Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows” (1959) – The greatest performance by any child actor is definitely this one. It’s ironic because Jean Pierre Leaud had the most subtle role. Also, his character didn’t even want much attention. Not only that, but he was the one calling for the least attention, even as a performance. But still, he manages to make it top of the list. This is because of many reasons: Leaud was natural, cool, subtle, impressive…every adjective I can think of that comprises a performance that surprised me so much but was so calm in the same time. Of course Leaud’s character is more complex then I’m painting it out to be. He was also angry and desperate. But you just have to watch the film to understand what I mean. It also surprises me that he doesn’t get as much attention as he should. The film is a classic, and a must watch for every film major or movie lover. But really, there wouldn’t be a “400 Blows” without Leaud playing the lead role with such precise perfection.


11 Comments Add yours

  1. Claudia Jantz says:

    The Boy In the Striped Pajamas and Empire of the Sun, two of the very best movies ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. I agree with you 🙂

  2. Anonymous says:

    Ricki Schroder in “The Champ”, outstanding performance for a child.

    1. Truly underrated work!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Pierce Gagnon in Looper is awesome. I still get goosebumps just thinking about his performance.

    1. He is pretty awesome! 🙂

  4. Sam says:

    …its Mrs Trunchbull in Matilda. Aren’t writers expected to research and proof their work anymore?

    1. Thanks for the correction. I write from memory and for my own personal enjoyment. Thanks.

  5. mike says:

    tatum o’neal paper moon

  6. Lynn says:

    Those were all great. I’m surprised you didn’t think to include Dakota Fanning.

  7. Jen says:

    Wow, I can’t believe Dominique Swain didn’t make this list for her portrayal of Lolita in 1997.
    Of course, the very nature of the film is disturbing and provocative, so it isn’t surprising it did not receive wide distribution or support. Swain was only 14 when the filming of Lolita began. She had never acted before in any capacity and her outstanding performance really is a testamen to Adrian Lyne’s directing. Dominique also held her own with veteran actor Jeremy Irons, whose performance as Humbert Humbert was one of his best in my opinion.
    Dominique Swain brought Lolita to life more authentically if you will, compared to Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s adaption in 1962. Given the sensitive nature of the film, she was put into adult situations that must have been difficult for a girl of that age. She handled it remarkably and she was unforgettable.

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