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December 11, 2006 |

By John Williams | Guides | December 11, 2006 |

Childhood can be a treacherous time. I’m 32 (for a few more short weeks), and there are plenty of days when the world still seems completely inscrutable to me. I can only imagine how I must have felt before the plates of my skull had fully fused.

This is one of the reasons it’s disappointing to see children in movies so often drawn with all the emotional complexity of a puppy in a basket. I know at least a handful of people who swear by the rule that if a child plays a prominent role, a movie is not for them. Having suffered through my share of sap, I can understand that. In a majority of cases, a very young actor is no more than a prop to produce unearned tears, or laughter, or sympathy for an adult character. Those prop performances are of varying quality (some kids are better at it than others), but the purpose is still noxious.

This is the point at which I was going to make fun of Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire, but it wasn’t his fault. There is something adorable about a tiny kid with oversized glasses who knows the weight of the human head, but there’s something less adorable about Cameron Crowe so crassly using him to manipulate the audience into caring about the movie’s central love story between his mom, Renee Zellweger, and the title character, The Ego from Planet Norgatron.

On lucky occasions, though, through the rare intelligence of a filmmaker or the sheer talent of a kid, we see a child as something more, as something closer to what children are, which is (scary thought) simply adults minus experience. The movies listed below all feature standout performances by child actors, but first, a couple of brief notes on the selection process:

I’ve set an (admittedly arbitrary) age limit of 13, mostly because once someone passes that age, I think it’s increasingly possible that they’re just preternaturally mature, making any great performance less of a marvel. I’m thinking of turns like Judy Garland’s in The Wizard of Oz — she was in her mid-teens when that was filming, but she might as well have been 50, the way she carried herself and held the screen.

This rule also eliminates one of the most, um, discussed performances by a youngster, which is Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls. Playing 13, she was 15 at the time, which makes the ensuing, raging crush suffered by every American male, including yours truly, only slightly less creepy. I’ve actually felt OK about my feelings for a while, because the point of the role is to show how easy it would be for an older guy (whether it’s me or Timothy Hutton) to fall in love with her on some level. (Rationalization: It’s what’s for dinner.)

Lastly, these are not my favorite movies that happen to have kids in them. I tried to select the best performances, even if the larger movie surrounding them is less than perfect. The kids are ranked in no special order, though the two I found most remarkable are at the bottom.

justinhenry.jpg Justin HenryKramer vs. Kramer

I only saw this for the first time a couple of years ago, and I was expecting a dated, maudlin take on the subject of divorce before it was a foregone conclusion for something like 85 percent of marriages (I haven’t checked the most recent statistics). It was pretty dumb to have those expectations of a movie that features both Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, but even they might have been hamstrung playing alongside an awkward child. Luckily, Henry (as their young son Billy) is a natural. His scenes with Hoffman have genuine father-son chemistry, which is vital to the movie’s emotional pull.

hoult.jpg Nicholas HoultAbout A Boy

For the first half-hour of this adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, Hoult (playing Marcus, a socially persecuted, androgynous schoolboy) wears a self-conscious smirk on his face. He’s not bad, but he’s nothing special. Then his mother (Toni Collette) attempts suicide, and his performance, including strong voiceover work, slowly gets richer (and it has to, because Hugh Grant, who plays the charming, hollow cad who unwittingly becomes Marcus’ father figure, has never been better cast).

williameadie.jpg William EadieRatcatcher

Set in Glasgow in the early 1970s, during a garbage strike, Ratcatcher could hardly be grimmer in its choice of locale. Its characters aren’t exactly carefree, either. Eadie plays James, a quiet boy with a father who drinks too much, a mother who looks distractingly like Rachel Dratch, and two sisters who alternately ignore and tease him. The movie begins with a startling switch of perspective (no reason to spoil it) before it meanders along with James through trash-filled streets, toxically polluted canals, and his family’s unkempt flat. The movie was mostly improvised, and Eadie conveys more through his mere presence than his speech. He has a disarming, expressive face and, fitting for the role, it’s often hard to tell whether he’s more sad or bored.

Two other kids in the cast also deserve mention — John Miller as Kenny, a small, stuttering boy who likes to collect rodents; and Leanne Mullen as Margaret Anne, a gangly girl who, in one of the story’s most dispiriting strands, offers herself up to several tough boys in the slum. Director Lynne Ramsay (who went on to make Morvern Callar) said that some of the inspiration for this feature-length debut came from her love of still photographs. This is clear throughout, but most obvious in a stunning scene when James, walking through an empty house in a newly built residential development in the surrounding countryside, comes upon a window looking out onto a vast cornfield.

roryculkin.jpg Rory CulkinYou Can Count on Me

I think just about everything in this movie is pitch-perfect (it’s easily among a handful of my very favorites), but that might not have been the case if the role of Laura Linney’s son, Rudy, hadn’t been so expertly played by Culkin. He portrays a smart kid in just the way kids are smart — not precociously encyclopedic, just wise about what’s going on around him and guileless enough to come up blank at times. His most memorable moment comes during a great scene with his uncle Terry, played by Mark Ruffalo. After Terry delivers a cranky, junior-high-level critique of suburban existence, Culkin earnestly asks, “What are you talking about?”

christianbale.jpg Christian BaleEmpire of the Sun

I’ve always thought this was Spielberg’s best work. It’s certainly his most underrated. Just about every scene is flawlessly shot, and while the last 30 minutes come apart a bit as Spielberg breaks out his Book of Morals, that hardly makes it different from any of his other Serious Films. Amazingly, Empire “introduced” Bale, and you could do worse than have your coming-out party directed by Spielberg from a script by Tom Stoppard. Bale is impressive as James Graham, a young Brit in Japan during World War II who goes from aristocratic brat to orphaned in an internment camp, where he has to grow up, but quick.

Here’s a clip, which is only an average scene for Bale, but the slow-motion shot as he watches his favorite fighter plane glide by is pure genius. There are things to dislike about Spielberg, but when you see a moment like this, it’s hard to deny that the guy is a master of his medium.

pomeranc.jpg Max PomerancSearching for Bobby Fischer

Pomeranc plays Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy in New York. The beauty of the performance (and the movie) is that Josh isn’t portrayed as a Rain Man-like freak of nature. He’s just a bright, shy kid with an extraordinary gift for playing chess, which is probably helped by the fact that Pomeranc was a highly ranked young player himself. The adults around him slowly become unhinged (but never melodramatically) as they try to both manage and exploit his talent.

seannelson.jpg Sean NelsonFresh

Along with Fischer, this is one that I couldn’t find on DVD in time to refresh my memory. (Also like Fischer, though not as blatantly, chess plays a role in this one.) The movie takes its title from the nickname of Nelson’s character, who lives in a house for children without parents. His father (Samuel L. Jackson) is still around on the streets, though, and the two have a relationship of sorts. I remember the movie being a bit uneven, jarring at times, but Nelson is terrific, including a powerful final moment that stays in my head as vividly as only a few others. For his work, Nelson earned an Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance, beating out Renee Zellweger and Jeremy Davies, among others.

abigailbreslin.jpg Abigail BreslinLittle Miss Sunshine

It was in the build-up to the closing scene of Little Miss Sunshine that I realized just how much Breslin’s performance was affecting me. She had already wowed me in a scene with Alan Arkin where she had to express the fear of failing her dad. The movie, though, had taken a turn for the slapstick that guaranteed it wouldn’t be much more memorable to me than any other entertaining comedy with a patina of indie credibility. But as Breslin got ready for the beauty pageant that inspired the title, a pageant the audience had every reason to think would go badly — and not in a funny way — I found myself thinking of the filmmakers: Harm this girl, and I will kill you. Partly that was because the situation was rigged to generate sympathy for the vulnerable kid (and in this way, of all the performances here, Breslin’s probably comes closest to achieving its impact in the cheapest manner), but there was more to it. Breslin had made her character, Olive, deeply sympathetic. We’ve all known true-blue nerds like that. (OK, most of us were — or still are — true-blue nerds like that.)

tatumoneal.gif Tatum O’NealPaper Moon

When I was a kid, I had a crush on O’Neal in The Bad News Bears and Little Darlings (which she starred in with Kristy McNichol, my uber-object of affection as a kid). If I had seen Paper Moon back then, I might have hauled my eight-year-old self to Hollywood and become the world’s youngest stalker.

Now that I’ve shared way too much …

Set in the American South during the Great Depression, Paper Moon was O’Neal’s first role, opposite her father (Ryan O’Neal), who plays a con man selling high-quality Bibles to freshly made widows who never ordered the things. Hijinks ensue.

Tatum, who turned 10 the year the movie was released, is hysterically funny. (When I told one friend I was writing this guide, and mentioned Paper Moon, she laughed and said, “‘I need to go to the shithouse’ … That’s one of my favorite lines ever.”) I think this is the second best movie, overall, on the list, behind You Can Count on Me. And along with the movie that follows below, it easily places the most weight on the child’s performance. There are extended scenes of rapid-fire dialogue (clearly uncut) where it’s almost impossible to believe that O’Neal was up to this task.

Here’s a quieter moment, the only one I could find.

ponette.gif Victoire Thivisol — Ponette

I know that the impact of the word “astonishing” has been greatly diminished by a world in which the Fairfield (CT) Fur Trapper-Gazzette offers to slap it on every big-studio newspaper ad for a dollar a shot, but how else would you describe a performance by a four-year-old that forms the emotional core of a devastating story about the loss of a parent and a crisis of faith? I saw this in a Dallas theater when it was released in 1997, but I just rewatched it, fearing it was the type of performance that loomed too mythically large in my memory.


The movie itself is strange, an extended meditation (in French) on a single idea, acted out almost entirely by children, and probably wildly subject to personal taste (I liked it a lot). It opens with Ponette in a hospital bed, arm in a cast, sucking her thumb, watched over by her young father. We quickly learn that she was in a car accident with her mother, who didn’t survive. The rest of the movie follows Ponette as she moves in with an aunt and two young cousins, then into a private home for children, all the while repeatedly praying to her mother and God for a reunion. Not much else happens over the course of the film’s 95 minutes, and it’s not hard to imagine someone being bored by it (particularly easy for me, since I’m pretty sure my girlfriend at the time let out a massive yawn over the closing credits). But the job done by Thivisol is less open to interpretation.

First, she has to overcome the fact that she’s an impossibly beautiful child in order for the performance to transcend its obvious heart-tugging appeal. There’s no question that some of the movie’s impact comes from just setting an adorable kid in front of a camera and telling the viewers that her mommy’s dead. She is also subject to the type of rumors that are probably natural in the face of a four-year-old pulling this off. Sites like IMDb are filled with speculation about whether or not she was abused on some level in order to look so sad so often, but while I guess I could imagine something along the lines of the director saying something cruel to inspire her, I don’t buy it. A hysterical kid would just look like a hysterical kid. Thivisol’s performance is controlled and purposeful, without a doubt.

What’s most amazing is how she convincingly progresses through the stages of not just grief but religious belief. When a woman at the school consoles a tearful Ponette by saying, “When God was Jesus on Earth, he also cried. But usually He’s as joyful as a child,” Ponette, confused at the sentiment, calmly shoots back, “It’s not joyful being a child.” Ahem.

The movie plays like a pretty straightforward Christian parable, which isn’t for everyone (including me, most of the time), but don’t miss this. No matter what you think of the movie as a whole (and I feel like I’ve given fair warning), her performance is one you will never forget.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

The Kids are Alright -- Standout Child Performances

Pajiba's Guide to What's Good for You / John Williams

Guides | December 11, 2006 |

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