The recent sequel to the highly-disturbing horror classic Orphan has gathered attention as one of the scariest movies of the year so far, with Isabelle Fuhrman reprising the chilling role that made her famous when she was a child. Her performance in the original Orphan is widely considered one of the best performances ever put to screen by a child actor.
However, there are plenty of other child performances that also deserve to be considered for this praise. Young actors can often be much more moving and impactful than adults, as their vulnerability and innocence can be twisted and manipulated to make some genuinely affecting movies.
Natalie Portman in Léon (1994)
Although Portman’s career didn’t really pick up until young adulthood, her role in Leon is often cited as her best to date. The way that she effortlessly switches personalities and brings a much-needed source of humanity into such a cold and callous story is nothing short of perfect.
Reddit user lazy_ad_6232 praises Portman’s work in the film, claiming that “her chemistry with Leon was amazing and still holds up.” The central dynamic between these two characters is a huge part of the film, and it’s impossible to imagine it working with anyone other than Portman.
Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019)
When it comes to child performances, Griffin Davis’ turn in Jojo Rabbit might just be one of the most entertaining ever put to film. His innate charm makes his character instantly likable, and his ability to navigate such powerful and emotional topics is completely unrivaled.
Reddit user janky_pants “still can’t believe [Davis] wasn’t nominated for an Oscar” following his work in Waititi’s comedy/drama, which eventually went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the awards. Though this is a more recent example, there’s no doubt that his work in Jojo Rabbit will push Davis into a highly successful career in the future.
Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (2010)
Pop icon Hailee Steinfeld has recently become popular for her role as Kate Bishop in the MCU’s Hawkeye series, but this isn’t the first time that she’s wowed audiences with her acting talent. Her dramatic turn in the Coen brothers’ True Grit took the world by storm, even earning her a nomination at the Academy Awards.
“[Steinfeld] holds her own with some amazing adult actors in a way few children are able to do,” claims Reddit user actual_dinner_5977. The way that she effortlessly transforms into this complex character is so impressive, it’s not surprising that the role launched her into a hugely successful career.
Abraham Attah in Beasts Of No Nation (2015)
Abraham Attah is a force to be reckoned with in Beasts of no Nation, playing a young boy who finds himself taken in by a fierce African warlord and his troop of soldiers. The film certainly doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to depicting the violent nature of war, and Attah’s performance is perfectly tuned to the film’s revolutionary message.
“[Attah] completely sells the emotional journey of Agu,” claims Reddit user your_mind_aches, “from innocent child to the withered ‘old man’ he is at the end.” Attah’s performance spans a huge emotional range, and it’s truly impressive that such nuance and maturity came from such a young actor.
Henry Thomas in E.T. (1982)
E.T’s Elliot is one of the all-time great child protagonists, and that’s thanks to a combination of Henry Thomas’ raw performance and Steven Spielberg’s outstanding direction in the film. The pair work together to create a layered character that immediately gets the audience on his side and guides them through this magical story.
Redditor okayatbowling calls Thomas a “very talented actor”, suggesting also that Spielberg may be “the best director of child actors ever”, which is why the film works so well. From his work in E.T. alone, Henry Thomas is often cited as one of the industry’s best child actors – so it’s surprising that he hasn’t found more success as an adult.
Kirsten Dunst in Interview With The Vampire (1994)
Kirsten Dunst had a hugely prosperous career as a child actor, though she’s often spoken out about the strain that this early success had on her wellbeing – and that really isn’t a surprise when considering the intense emotional strain that was placed upon her in stories such as Interview With the Vampire.
Her performance in the movie is “great”, according to Reddit user reznorwings, even though it was an incredibly demanding role. There are few other actresses who could have pulled off the character of Claudia with such powerful emotion, “especially given the subject matter.”
Alan Kim in Minari (2020)
Alan Kim captured the world’s hearts two years ago when he appeared in Minari, playing a young boy who quickly learns the value of family after his parents move to Arkansas in search of the so-called American dream. He plays the character of David with such transparency and clarity that it’s almost impossible to believe he was only 7 years old.
Redditor greg0_reddit believes that “Alan Kim in Minari” is one of the finest examples of child-acting done right. Not only does Kim show maturity beyond his years, but he also captures the childlike innocence that’s so important for the journey of his character. He’s one of the many reasons that Minari is considered one of A24’s best films to date.
Jacob Tremblay in Room (2015)
Jacob Tremblay has become one of the most sought-after child actors in recent years, and it’s easy to attribute his high demand to the work that he put forward alongside his co-star Brie Larson in Room. The pair develop a fully compelling on-screen chemistry in the film, with Tremblay in particular shining thanks to the intensity of his role.
It’s not often that such young actors are given the responsibility of playing such traumatic and daunting roles, but Tremblay completely embraces it and makes the character his own. Reddit user alpha2669, along with many other fans of the movie, is “surprised that [Tremblay] wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.”
Christian Bale in Empire Of The Sun (1987)
Christian Bale is one of the rare child actors who found great success as an adult, but as Prestigious-Willow-8 points out, his work in Empire of the Sun remains some of his most impressive and stirring work to date. Spielberg’s war drama tells the story of a British boy who finds himself separated from his family and forced to work in a Japanese POW camp.
Bale’s character Jamie practically carries the entire film on his shoulders, often outshining the more experienced members of the cast with his richly emotional performance. It’s no surprise that Bale’s success has continued to grow, as he proved early on that he was one of Hollywood’s strongest assets.
Jodie Foster In Taxi Driver (1976)
It’s usually Robert De Niro’s name that’s heard when discussing the many highlights of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but Reddit user mrcrash2u rightly believes that such praise should also extend to Jodie Foster. Her character goes through so much trouble and hardship throughout the film, and every second of her trauma can be seen on Foster’s face throughout.
“[Foster] played some very complex characters for a child her age,” they write. And whilst they’re right that Taxi Driver certainly isn’t Foster’s only noteworthy accomplishment, it definitely is her most impressive and memorable as a child actor.
NEXT: 10 Best Performances From Child Actors In The MCU