Favorite Child Performances

Sometimes a child’s perspective in film is profound, and a film rises in credibility. Looking at an adult world through the eyes of a child brings a lucidity into the realm of chaos. When a child actor nails a performance, it stays in my mind twice as long as an adult actor. It’s the irony, the role-reversal when the child is tougher than the adult which I find alluring.  Here are several of my favorite roles portrayed by children, and I would be interested in knowing yours.

Empire of the Sun, 1987

Based on J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel, Spielberg’s WWII film adaptation about an aristocratic English boy during Japanese occupation starred Christian Bale whose ability to shift from a state of privilege to POW black-market prince impressive.

The Piano, 1993

Flora McGrath was a jealous, mischievous daughter and translator for her mute mother, Ada. Anna Paquin won an Oscar for her role in this 19th century period piece filmed in New Zealand and written/directed by Jane Campion.


In 1996, four-year-old French actress, Victoire Thivisol, amazed audiences with her multi-layered performance as the girl whose mother has died and she has to come to terms with the tragedy. I wonder how director Jacques Doillon managed to coax such a precocious performance. I can’t watch this without crying.

Addams Family


Eleven year old Christina Ricci’s performance in 1991 took a silly film and raised it by giving the best performance of the entire cast. Dead-pan delivery, those haunting eyes, and disturbed demeanor was down-right scary. Did Tim Burton have a daughter? It could have been Wednesday.

Sixth Sense, 1999

M. Night Shyamalan leaped on to the scene like a lion as director of Sixth Sense. The character Cole, who saw dead people gave such a believable performance, he outshined and outsmart Bruce Willis. What a hot run as a child actor Haley Joel Osment had playing sensitive, smart characters. Whatever happened to him?

The Book Thief, 2014

Sophie Nelisse was charming and convincing as the illiterate orphan who breathed life into words and saved a Jew hidden in the basement of her German, adoptive parents house. I hope you had a chance to see this remarkable film. Sophie could be the new Scarlett Johansson or Natalie Portman, and I hope Sophie will be impressing me with her acting for decades to come. Have you read the 2007 YA book by Markus Zusak? It’s wonderful.

These are just a few of special performances that stole my heart. What are some of yours?

64 thoughts on “Favorite Child Performances

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  1. Certainly, Christian Bale and Haley Joel Osment are on my list, for sure. Jodie Foster for Taxi Driver, Tatum O’neal (Paper Moon), and Natalie Portman for The Professional are the others.

    1. Thanks, Michael, and I would have been disappointed if no one mentioned Jodie Foster or Tatum O’Neal. Nice call with Natalie as Mathilda. Reno and Oldman were great as usual, but it was the precocious Natalie who brought a strange and powerful dynamic to the story. Awesome!

    1. Glad I beat you to it, Alex ;). Yes, all the boys in Stand by Me were gr8eat– Joaquin is one of the best actors out there today, and his little brother River had the same sensitivity and maturation beyond his years. I wish he were alive today–what a powerhouse it would have been to see those two on the screen together!

    2. Brilliant picks Alex! And really great post Cindy. It’s so true that an excellent performance from a child is more likely to stick around in the viewer’s mind. The reward often outweighs the risk. (A not so great performance can be exceedingly grating, but tough to meaningfully critique).


      1. Thanks, Adam. There are many fine performances to choose from. I had hoped someone would mention another great one ( forgot to add her) Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit. It makes me appreciate them all the more when I think about the staged dialogue/acting or unrealistic performances that are too many. That would go for anything Disney puts out on TV or whatever. My least favorite performances are from Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone or Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

          1. I didn’t feel warm and fuzzy with Jonathon’s performance either. Sorry. He seemed pathetic and there was no chemistry between he and Cruise–it loooked very awkward.

  2. I haven’t seen all of these, but those I have (Paguin, Osment and Nelisse) are all special.

    My favorite child performance? Elle Fanning, a thirteen year old, at the time, American playing a seventeen year old Brit during the Cold War, in last year’s Ginger and Rosa. After that, Quvenshane Wallis’ work in Beasts of the Southern Wild might come close. Haley Joel Osment in the Sixth Sense, as you said, is also remarkable.

    1. I almost listed Quvenshane Wallis’ work in Beasts of the Southern Wild so I’m glad you brought her into the discussion. She was amazing. I missed Ginger and Rosa! Ouch! Elle and Dakota are like the female versions of the Phoenix brothers. Super actors.

      1. You can still catch it. 🙂 It is an upsetting movie, to be sure, but also one I think you’d like-ish. A great sense of setting, fabulous period details, terrific acting, and equally good character development. Ginger and Rosa was one of my ten favorites from 2013.

        Agreed on the sibling comparison. Like the Phoenix’s, they both have loads of talent.

    1. 🙂 If I did, Macaulay Culkin would win the Raz award for Home Alone.
      Your inclusion of Ivana is a great choice. I loved A.I. and Haley was fine there, too. Couldn’t agree with you more, Mikey.

  3. Interesting article Cindy. Although it’s a shame I haven’t seen many of your selections, Cristina Ricci stands out for me.
    Favourite child performances I recalled while reading your post were Leonardo Di Caprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Mary Badham, who had a very short acting career but memorably played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

    1. YES! Thanks, Paul. I refrained from listing Leo but I thought his performance in WEGG was stellar. He was 19 when he did that role alongside of Johnny Depp. That to me, makes it even more impressive. His baby face paid off. Yes, to Mary in To Kill a Mockingbird. Two great additions to the discussion. Thanks, Paul.

  4. Great idea for a list Cindy! Bale definitely impressed me in Empire of the Sun, talk about an actor destined for greatness. Nelisse was good as well in The Book Thief and of course Osment was quite a revelation in Sixth Sense. One of the child actor who impressed me was the boy in Dear Frankie, too bad I haven’t seen him in anything else since. Oh also the little girl in The Fall is simply adorable!

    1. The Fall? TV series or the film? I don’t know about either.
      Jack McElhone was a cutie and grew up a cutie, too. I’m not surprised you don’t like him since he’s Scottish. Did you like him as John Lennon in ‘Nowhere Boy’?

      1. Oh sorry I forgot there’s a TV show called that too. I’m referring to the movie from a few years ago, here’s the trailer: http://youtu.be/EeAyIQ_OT_I

        Did I say I didn’t like McElhone? It’s the opposite, I LOVE him in Dear Frankie, yes definitely a cutie! WOW I totally forgot he’s in Nowhere Boy! I guess I was transfixed by Aaron Johnson who played the 20-something Lennon. He’s such a beautiful young man 😉

        1. I’m struck how fast the kids grow up. It seems 75 percent don’t transition into adult stars for a variety of reasons and only 5 percent become super stars like Bale, Johannson, Portman, and I’m still waiting to see about Dakota Fanning and Emma Watson–Daniel Radcliffe, for that matter, too.

  5. There is one that sticks in my mind, but they weren’t actually children, but teenagers in a Peter Sellers movie, “The World of Henry Orient.”

  6. I haven’t seen some of these but I totally agree on Bale. My list would include Natalie Portman in Léon, Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, Pierce Gagnon in Looper and Saoirse Ronan in Atonement. Also a special mention to all the child cast in The Impossible.

      1. Well, Saoirse’s been veryactive as of late. Recently saw her in Grand Budapest Hotel. Tom Holland was superb in The Impossible but haven’t watched him in anything since, His younger siblings (in the film) were very solid as well.

    1. I ♥ Meryl most my life. As far as the list goes, Sophie’s Choice is my favorite. The languages, the sensitivity, her relationship with Kline’s character–she was so beautiful. I thought she was supurb in Doubt, and her Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Abbi. She should have been on the list; I’m glad you mentioned her. Only six–what a lot of heart and chutzpah. Have you seen her in anything else? I thought Mara Wilson was completely convincing. She was cute in Mrs. Doubtfire and Miracle on 34th Street. Now she’s 25, and I wish she’d transition over into the adult world. She had a lot of talent.

      1. I was blown away that someone so young could give such a powerful performance. I haven’t seen her in anything else though. Apparently Mara Wilson decided acting wasn’t for her and retired before her teens. She was great though.

  7. Another great topic.
    I really need to reeatch empire of the sin, it’s been so long I hardly remember anything.

    Just like you, I also wonder where is Halley Joel now.

    I also like Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland and August Rush, Nicholas Hoult in About A Boy.

    1. I loved August Rush even though many thought it cheesy. I feel that way about music, so the message meant something to me. Ice call with Nicholas Hoult in About A Boy.

  8. Nice quick write -up on child stars. I couldn’t recognize Christian Bale. I haven’t seen that movie. Love ‘The Piano’ and ‘The Sixth Sense’. Love the touching trailer of ‘Ponette’. I’d love to chk it out. I too felt teary just watching the trailer.
    There are so many great performances by children, Elijah Wood in ‘Child in the Night’ (1990), both Wood and Macaulay Culkin in ‘The Good Son’ (93′), Then kids of ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989), ‘The Children’s Hour’ (1961), ‘The Innocents’ (1961) etc etc … so many more.

    1. Hi Nuwansen, thanks for your input. I bet you would really appreciate Bale’s performance in Empire of the Sun. A great film, all around.The Children’s Hour — yes, what a peformance by the witchy, manipulative Karen Balkin as Mary.

      1. I enjoyed Haley Joel Osment, as well. I’m not usually bowled over by kids on screen, but every now and then someone rolls around who is really good. I will have to come back after thinking of this for a bit.

    1. The definitive list — was waiting for your input 😉
      Yes, yes, Natalie in The Professional-boy, it sure notified the world that a star was born. Interesting choice with Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire. I forgot all about her in that–that hair! She was great.

  9. Great list! Shout out to Joe Swanberg’s son (I think) in Happy Christmas – he might be a baby, but he’s hilarious! Not sure it qualifies as great acting, but it’s certainly the most engaging I’ve seen a child that young…

  10. Wonderful post Cindy. Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver is just incredible and I loved Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. My favourite though is Quvenzahne Wallis in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. It’s such a wonderful film and the performances are so beautiful.

    1. Hi! Sorry for the delayed response, I was traveling and just returned. Glad for your comments and hope you stop by again soon! 🙂
      Yes, I agree with you totally regarding Jody Foster and Quvenzahne Wallis. I hope we see her in a film again soon. It was a magical film so bittersweet.

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