Young Talent: Recognising the great child actors

Kes child actorThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded twelve special “Juvenile Oscars” between 1934 and 1960. The recipients included some of the biggest names in Hollywood, such as Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney. In more recent years, it has become almost commonplace for actors in their teens or even younger to receive actual Academy Award nominations. Last year, Quevenzhane Wallis joined a list that includes Jodie Foster, Anna Paquin, Tatum O’Neal, Haley Joel Osment, Sal Mineo, Hailee Steinfeld, and Keisha Castle-Hughes, among others, to be so recognised.

That got me thinking about all the great performances by actors prior to their 18th birthdays that were not so recognised. Given the nature of typical film production, handling a teen-age actor can be problematic. Next time you are watching a child performing on television, look to see how often the child’s lines are delivered in a close-up cutaway. That is generally a sign of an actor incapable of playing a scene in continuity. It is easy for children to be too cute or too leaden. And they generally make for great plot contrivances.

Here then, are noteworthy performances from eighteen movies given by actors younger than eighteen. There are more than eighteen actors listed because three of the movies feature pairs of actors. I have generally left off the better-known young people, like those honoured by the Academy. They have already received pretty good publicity. Here are some that have not.

Tomio Aoki as Keiji & Hideo Sugawara as Ryoichi in I Was Born, But… (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

Ozu’s silent comedy has all the poignancy we would come to expect over the next thirty years. Aoki and Sugawara play young brothers who are appalled by their father’s meekness in the presence of his boss. Their indignation is petulant in a manner well known to the parents of young boys. Aoki would go on to act in more than 100 films in a long career, while Suguwara would barely act again.

Franco Interlenghi as Pasquale and Rinaldo Smordoni as Giuseppe in Shoeshine (Dir. Vittorio de Sica, 1946)

De Sica generally represents the sentimental side of neo-realism, and it is interesting that this movie about two kids struggling to get by in post-war Italy is probably his least sentimental. A lot of that has to do with the kids in question. Like their Japanese colleagues above, one of them, Interlenghi, became a leading Italian actor, while the other, Smordoni, was hardly seen on screen again.

Bobby Henrey as Phillippe in The Fallen Idol (Dir. Carol Reed, 1948)

The powerhouse actor Ralph Richardson gives one of his greatest performances in this magnificent melodrama. But his perfect-yet-flawed butler could not shine as brightly if not reflected in the eyes of his young charge Phillippe. It builds to one of the simplest tragedies witnessed on screen. Henrey would act in one more movie before moving on to other things.

Dean Stockwell as Peter Fry in The Boy with Green Hair (Dir. Joseph Losey, 1948)

Before Blue Velvet (1986), before Quantum Leap (1989-1993), before his Oscar nom for Married to the Mob (1988), Dean Stockwell was a rather popular child actor. This was his most challenging role because he was largely playing a cipher onto whom the adults in the movie project what they want to see. Yet Stockwell finds humanity in a symbol, a tall order for an actor of any age.

Ivan Jandl as Karel Malik in The Search (Dir. Fred Zinneman, 1948 – obviously a good year for the kids)

All right, I lied. Sue me. Jandl was in fact recognised by the Academy with a Juvenile Award in 1948. But he is so good – so frightened yet defiant as the war orphan adopted by American G.I. Montgomery Clift – and his promising career was so derailed by his appearance in a mainstream American film, that I thought he needed some love. He is magnificent in this.

Christopher Olsen as Richie Avery in Bigger Than Life (Dir. Nicholas Ray, 1956)

I will not make similar claims of magnificence for Olsen, who did not act on screen past adolescence. He is here because he had a very difficult assignment. He had to stay on screen next to James Mason at his most over-the-top. The fact that the scenery devouring Mason did not also devour young Olsen is testament to just how solid he was.

Hugh Edwards as Piggy in Lord of the Flies (Dir. Peter Brook, 1963)

Like most of the children in Brook’s iconic vision of William Golding’s novel, Edwards had never acted before, and would never act again. Brook reportedly treated him to luxury off the set so that the other deprived kids would develop genuine hatred for him. Edwards was born to play this role and he delivers a timeless portrait of civilised man caught up in an animal onslaught that he cannot control. If you think the dialogue of all the actors seems halting, it is largely due to the fact that a novice director and crew didn’t really know what they were doing, and thus much of the dialogue had to be dubbed later.

Nadine Nortier as Mouchette in Mouchette (Dir. Robert Bresson, 1967)

It is entirely possible that Nadine Nortier was older than 18 when she made this, her only film. I know virtually nothing about her. But I’d like to think she was playing her age as the tortured teen in Bresson’s masterpiece. Like Falconetti nearly forty years earlier (The Passion of Joan of Arc) Nortier may have found working for such a meticulous director a chore she did not want to engage in again. No matter, this one performance gives her a place in film history.

David Bradley as Billy Casper in Kes (Dir. Ken Loach, 1969)

If you liked Billy Elliot (2000) … well, I can’t honestly promise you will like Kes more. I can say it is more honest, raw, and poignant, but that may not be what you are looking for. Loach had a real affinity early in his career for young people, and Bradley’s portrayal of a scrawny Yorkshire lad with nothing to live for other than his pet falcon is wonderfully vigorous and free of all sentiment. If you’re not well-versed in Yorkshire-ese you may have trouble understanding the dialogue. It scarcely matters.

Luc Roeg as the Boy in Walkabout (Dir. Nicholas Roeg, 1971)

The other two actors, Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil, were central to this coming-of-age culture clash. Though they were playing younger, both were just past 18. But Roeg, who was billed as Lucien John to dispel thoughts of nepotism, provided his father’s film with a real and genuine child. As such, he is the crucial backdrop against which the older kids play out their courtship. Roeg would never act again, but has gone on to a career as a producer.

Sandrine Bonnaire as Suzanne in A Nos Amours (Dir. Maurice Pialat, 1983)

As my mother was fond of telling me, “I love all my children equally, but I love you the best.” Well, I’m not ranking these performances, but if I were, Bonnaire would be at the top. She is spectacularly adult and childlike at the same time, perfectly capturing what is it to be an adventurous 15 year old. A decade later, she would blow us all away with her central performance in Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1985). This was an excellent indication of things to come.

Thomas Jungling Sorensen as Mendel in Mendel (Dir. Alesander Rosler, 1997)

mendel child actors

There is a scene in this story of a Jewish family relocated from Germany to Norway after the war in which firemen in full gear arrive at young Mendel’s home. Mendel comes out with his hands raised, ready to give in to this version of the Nazis he has heard whispers about throughout his life. Mendel was born after the atrocities and no one will tell him the truth. In his curiosity, he makes up his own story. Sorensen captures this harrowing moment, among many others, beautifully.


Paul Dano as Howie in L.I.E. (Dir. Michael Cuesta, 2001)

Paul Dano is thirty now and he may never have another lead role. He is so good in so many supporting performances (I remember him for his 5-10 minutes in 12 Years a Slave as much as any of the other actors in that movie) that this could be his lot in film. Watch him as the teen seduced by the much older Brian Cox in Michael Cuesta’s film and you’ll see how easily he can carry a movie.

Agnes Bruckner as Meg Denning in Blue Car (Dir. Karen Moncrieff, 2002)

Bruckner was nominated for an Independent Spirit award for this good companion piece to Catherine Hardwicke’s better known Thirteen (2003). I could have easily included both leads from Thirteen on this list, but I chose Bruckner because in many ways this is a more subtle and challenging role, built not upon sexuality, but upon poetry.

Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody Guthrie in I’m Not There (Dir. Todd Haynes, 2007)

Haynes’ movie, featuring six actors playing different alter-egos of Bob Dylan, is a bit of a mess. All right, it’s a huge mess. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Wishaw, and Richard Gere are all overwhelmed by the construct. Cate Blanchett is not, and neither is Franklin, who has the good fortune to get a good part to play, and who plays the hell out of it.

Alejandro Polanco as Alejandro in Chop Shop (Dir. Ramin Bahrani, 2007)

Ale is a 12 year old boy getting by on his wits alone in Queens. Polanco seems so comfortable on screen, showing Ale’s fearlessness and humour, pride and sensitivity, that it’s easy to forget you are watching an actor and not a documentary. Polanco has not acted in a feature since, but is scheduled to appear in something later this year.

Kare Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli in Let the Right One In (Dir. Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

On one level, a vampire thriller. On another, among the most complex pictures of young love and sexuality ever put on film. It deals with bullying and sex, true love and true sacrifice, in a way that very few adult films even attempt. And at its heart are these two fearless young performers. I will not badmouth the American remake with the very talented Chloe Grace Moritz, but the original is better.

Ezra Miller as Vince Rizzo, Jr. in City Island (Dir. Raymond De Felitta, 2009)

Miller has already done impressive work as the asocial murderer Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and the flamboyant gay teen Patrick in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). A few years earlier, he burst upon the scene playing the youngest member of a gently screwed up New York family, improvising many of his lines and delivering a warm yet hilarious portrait of a teenage boy erotically drawn to very heavy women.

I could have added half a dozen performances from child actors 2013 alone, but I thought I’d better stop here. Feel free to suggest your own favourites in the comments.


Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at

9 thoughts on “Young Talent: Recognising the great child actors

  1. Teenagers seem like a different category. Agnes Bruckner in Blue Car seems hardly comparable to the kids in Let The Right One In. She’d definitely be offended to be called a child anyway.

    • Thanks Alina. The one thing I think of with regard to TV is that there are so many better roles for women and girls. So along with Maisie Williams, you have Sara Gilbert on Roseanne, Claire Danes on My So-Called Life, and my own favorite obscurity, Square Pegs with Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Linker. Williams, of course, is doing outside the more common form of the comedy.

  2. As a rule, i cant bear watching children in the movies. but you have jogged my memory with this list, reminding me of some excellent performances by child actors. Id like to add to Pete’s suggestion of Whistle Down the wind another tremendous Hayley Mills performance in Tiger Bay.

    • Thanks Bill. I was going through the Leo McCarey filmography recently and watched An Affair to Remember again. The children in that are so dreadful that it seems as if he went out of his way to cast and direct the kids in such a way as to guarantee bad performances. It really makes me appreciate the good ones all the more.

  3. Great to see this theme Jon, and many films that I have never managed to see.
    As I am English, I was delighted to see the inclusion of ‘Kes’ and ‘Fallen Idol’, as well as one of my favourites, ‘Walkabout’, and the marvellous ‘Let The Right One In’. I would suggest a look at ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ (1961), a great performance from Hayley Mills. Also the 11 year old Pelle Hvenegard, in the 1987 film ‘Pelle The Conqueror’.

    I could not go, without a mention for what I consider to be the most riveting child acting ever, by Aleksei Kravchenko in the Russian film ‘Come and See’ (1985). This harrowing film was made when he was just 14 years old, and is one of my top ten films of all time, with him in almost every scene. Masterpiece is over-used, often by me, but this film truly is one, and it is mainly because of his haunting presence
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks for the suggestions, Pete. Come and See is one of those movies I have heard a lot about but never seen. I will now move it to the top of my list. Mills was the last performer to be awarded the Juvenile Oscar, for Pollyanna

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