Big stars like Ryan Gosling and Natalie Portman had highly successful childhoods as well as their enviable careers today. Gosling was a member of the infamous Mickey Mouse Club and Portman rose to fame thanks to her lead role in Luc Besson’s surrogate family thriller Leon. Both had extremely different childhoods with different performances defining them but one thing is certain, they have both developed into inspiring actors, performers capable of wildly different characters.
Recently the influx of star quality child actors has been high with a crop of new youngsters captivating audiences all over. While I could cover years and look at the first real child performers, the ones that made careers to be envied out of their initial success but I would be here too long and ultimately I don’t have all the time in the world, a tired cliche I’m sure but true none the less.
Therefore I have whittled the choices down to child actors who are still technically children, youngsters and teenagers who have struck gold and wowed audiences in their short time in the public eye. This list varies from a relative newcomer whose only real role is one of tremendous courage and unwavering optimism to a bonafide star.
The Children of Spielberg and Scorsese
While technically a film by JJ Abrams, Super 8 is quintessentially a Steven Spielberg film, it has all the trappings of an 80s flick just with double the explosions and special effects that don’t look like they were designed using Microsoft Paint. While not a perfect film it has some of the finest child actors working today in it from the subtle portrayal of a quietly angry kid with all his emotions bubbling under the surface by Joel Courtney to the terrific and rebellious performance of Elle Fanning as a young girl looking to avoid the large shadow her hated father has cast. The film works because Fanning and Courtney make a terrific double team. However Fanning overshadows Courtney in the picture making it understandable why her career has taken off since.
Starring in films like Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere and Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, Fanning is starting to become a permanent fixture on our screens much like her sister Dakota. She manages to add little details to her performances from a subtle squeak during a tender hug toward the end of We Bought a Zoo to the complex mindset of Cleo, a girl older than she should be, an insular yet tough presence that holds up next to Stephen Dorff’s narcissistic Johnny. An imaginative actor who adds colour and individuality to her many parts.
Much like Fanning, Asa Butterfield found global fame thanks to his starring role in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a family adventure film that roams the halls of a Parisian train station as Hugo (Butterfield) searches for the last message from his father, an inventor who Hugo lost too soon. Butterfield effortless guides the audience through a film of complicated back story and cinematic history. The film, a different kind of Scorsese picture, brims with unspoken meaning from the importance of cinema and dreams and wonder to the need for connection, the desire to find a place you belong, something Hugo kids himself into believing is this train station with thousands of people moving through it, not one of them understanding anything about him. The solitary figure could be seen as depressing as his story is one of melancholy but Butterfield hides hope behind his blue eyes, a belief that if he can just find the answer he’s looking for everything will be alright. Butterfield will next appear in Gavin Hood’s Enders Game, a science fiction epic about a young boy who holds humanities future in his hands, a big budget actioner far from the hustle and bustle of 1930s Paris but I’ll always remember Butterfield as Hugo Cabret, a child with a dream, just one hidden from sight, just like he is.
Curse Words & Ultra Violence: A Film for All Ages
With a title like that I can only be talking about one star in particular, one who stormed into the public consciousness with her hell raising role as Mindy McCready or as most people will know her, Hit Girl. Of course the actress is Chloe Grace Moretz and her scene stealing role as the foul mouthed killer/hero made everyone take note and put her on the map but while Kick Ass made her into a star, it was films like the previously mentioned Hugo and Let Me In that really put her on the dramatic map. As Isabelle she proves a perfect foil for Hugo, a cheerful girl with an all important sense of adventure, an ever optimistic presence that keeps Hugo on his quest for answers while helping and protecting those close to her.
Let Me In however allows her to show off her interpretation of an old soul, a monster consumed by the fact she will never grow, never experience new things and is forced to hide in the dark, the dank and the depressing. A wonderfully gothic tale of death and the ever consuming power of humanity and love, Let Me In shows a different version of Moretz, a vindictive, depressive creature fleshed out with liitle quirks she fits in from her signature lip twitches to her ability to go all out creating moments of pure terror from just her facial expressions. Understandably she is arguably Hollywood’s biggest child actor and for good reason. (Lets just forget about Texas Killing Fields)
The Newbies: The Dreamer and The Hero
These last two actors have only really appeared in one starring role apiece although one has a series of big titles in his future, he is Tom Holland, one of the stars of The Impossible, this years shocking depiction of the Boxing Day tsunami and the family that survived it together. The other is Onata Aprile, the star of What Maisie Knew, a masterclass in personal storytelling and imagery, an adaptation of Henry James’ book of the same name, a 1897 publication, one of the first stories ever written to look at the effect of divorce on the mind of a child.
It’s hard to make a judgement about either one of them from one performance but if they can carry across their skill and ability to add character to a speechless scene they will be just as good if not better than their inaugural star turns.
Holland for one brings a sense of realism to an unbelievable tale, a seemingly fabricated story of family above all else. Despite the true nature of the films tale it still had the risk of feeling fake, a miraculous story is usually just that as we have been taught as a populace to take everything with a pinch of salt. However The Impossible proves gruelling to watch and most of all it manages to find realism through the interactions of its characters from Hollands Lucas roaming a destroyed Thailand and its ravaged countryside with his seriously wounded mother Maria (Naomi Watts) to his reunion with father Henry (Ewan McGregor), the film splits its time between the horrors of becoming isolated in a foreign land with injuries that require serious attention, to the joys of survival, the pleasure of reuniting with a family whose bonds seem stronger because of the experience. Holland’s Lucas however proves the bridge between these two sections, the one person constantly looking forward to the hope of family as he helps those around him reconnect, even despite the horrors he has already experienced himself. Holland says everything he needs to during the film distressing first hour and a half through his stoic and steely visage, a face that has plenty to say even if nothing comes out. While the film itself becomes a Hallmark tale by the films conclusion, Holland comes out of it a shining star, an actor with a lot of promise in his future.
While equally impressive, Aprile is a different barrel of fish, an old soul made older by her warring parents, something depicted with grace and naivety from the 7 year old actress, a young girl able to upstage seasoned pros such as Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan. A story of destruction, a tale the original author described as the destruction of a childhood, What Maisie Knew features one of the best child performances to grace the screen and to understand how good you just have to see it. While I could say more I will leave that for my full review which will be posted in the days to come.
Have We Had The Best or Is It A Renewable Resource?
Obviously it’s a renewable resource unless we evolve into those humans from Children of Men, the universally barren monsters that evolve from a world without hope but what I mean when I ask if its a renewable resource is if we can maintain the quality we have had recently or if the actors I have mentioned in this list are the best that is to come, the finest crop of young actors to have arisen in quite some time. We have never really had a golden age of kids films until now, something that has been pushed forward by people like Moretz, Butterfield and Fanning, three performers better than some of the adults they star with. However performers like Holland and Aprile give me hope that the best is yet to come and intelligent child actors are always going to be a part of our public consciousness thanks to directors and writers willing to write moving tales about youth and the wonder kids experience even when the adults have lost all sight of it.