An idea that I’ve been kicking around in my head since I saw the above-average child performances in the first third of “Never Let Me Go:” the top 10 child performances of all time (as always, of course, by “all time,” I mean “of the movies that I’ve seen”). The line for “child actor” is of course a sketchy one, but I think we can agree on a hazy “pre-adolescent” definition and leave it at that. Can you think of anyone that’s missing from this list?
10. Billy Chapin, The Night of the Hunter
Probably the most pedestrian performance on this list, Chapin does occasionally give in to moments of over-acting that so often plague child actors in demanding dramatic roles (quite reasonably, of course; you can hardly blame a 9-year old for not having yet developed extraordinary acting talent). But Chapin gets bonus points for absolutely nailing the part in the moments when it matters most: the frightened but steadfast expression he wears as Robert Mitchum’s looming silhouette, outlined by the streetlamp outside Chapin’s home, slowly engulfs him comes to mind. But he saves the best for last in a pitch-perfect breakdown, overwhelmed by the memory of his father’s arrest and finally unable to carry the weight of the crushing burden his deadbeat dad saddled him with.
9. Henry Thomas, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
One of the reasons I can stomach Spielberg’s cutesy sap-fest is Thomas’ genuinely touching performance as the boy with the alien buddy. As with Ivana Baquero (see below), Thomas’ inherent wonder and youthful exuberance carry the day.
8. Hunter Carson, Paris, Texas
In Wim Wenders’ masterpiece, Harry Dean Stanton plays a man who walked away from his wife and child, isolating himself in the Texas wilderness rather than subject his family to his own jealousy and alcoholism. Returning to civilization several years later, Stanton finds that his wife, unable to take care of their son on her own, has left young Hunter with Stanton’s brother and his wife, who essentially consider the boy their adopted son. Determined to reunite the boy with his birth mother, Stanton takes Carson on a “Searchers”-esque journey, gradually healing the gaping hole left between them by Stanton’s earlier abandonment. The boy Hunter is an incredibly demanding role, but Carson plays him with just the right balance of sweetness, precociousness and heart-breaking curiosity (“Why did she leave us?”). This is partly a film about family, and it only works if we feel each and every family member has something at stake.
7. Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck (rightfully) gets most of the praise for perfectly embodying Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but Badham is also critical to the film’s success in nailing the fierce tom-boy spirit and pre-adolescent sense of wonder/naivete of Scout Finch. This is really Scout’s story, and Badham doesn’t let us forget that (well, Badham and the slightly overbearing “Older Scout” narration).
6. Ivana Baquero, Pan’s Labyrinth
Thrust into the horror and cruelty of the Spanish Civil War, forced to appease a selfish stepfather with no patience for her fruitful imagination, it’s easy to see why Ofelia, the heroine of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” chooses to escape into her fantasies (however literally she does, depending on your interpretation of Del Toro’s tale). Baquero does a phenomenal job bringing out all sides of Ofelia, cautious and fearful but also resourceful, easily fooled by her own sense of wonder and amazement but remarkably unflinching.
5. Babek Ahmed Poor, Where is the Friend’s Home?
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s film has an exceedingly simple narrative: Ahmed, a young boy in the rural village of Koker, accidentally takes home the workbook of one of his friends from school. The other boy, who is failing class, will likely get kicked out of school unless Ahmed can return the book in time for his friend to do his homework. The touchingly earnest, concerned manner with which Ahmed goes about his journey just feels refreshing to watch after seeing so many bombastic, self-centered American movie heroes. As the adults around him dismiss and ignore his problem, Ahmed becomes one of the most endearing, sympathetic figures you’ll ever see.
4. Eamonn Owens, The Butcher Boy
The ferocity and energy with which Owens throws himself into the role of Francie Brady is comparable to some of the greatest “psychopaths” in film history, like Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange” or Tom Hardy in “Bronson.” Francie’s violent tendencies are a little more explicable, considering the harsh conditions of his 1960’s rural Irish upbringing (drunkard father, suicidal mother, molesting priests, the whole shebang), but that just makes the character all the more complex. Francie is not an unintelligent boy; there is a strong sense that things didn’t have to be this way. His descent into shocking brutality rather comes out of a deep-seeded, often misguided, sense of betrayal and loss. The posters for this film merely depicted a running stick figure with a bomb with a lit fuse for a head; the image fits Francie perfectly, and Owens properly makes the character an on-screen force.
3. Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver
As a 14-year old playing a 12-year old prostitute, Jodie Foster’s part in “Taxi Driver” is probably pushing the boundaries of what I would consider a “child performance.” But what enthralls (and horrifies) a viewer of “Taxi Driver” so thoroughly is the mixture of wise-beyond-her-years maturity and childlike innocence. Travis Bickle’s quest to “rescue” the girl can cause us to zero in on the latter, but earlier scenes strongly suggest that Foster’s character is content with where she is. Foster’s unforgettable breakthrough performance set her up for a daring, productive career.
2. Max Records, Where the Wild Things Are
Creating a flesh-and-blood character out of a 20-page picture book is no easy task, but young Records pulled off the task with aplomb. Thanks to Spike Jonze’s subtle tweaks and expansions to the story and the unique filming atmosphere (Jonze encouraged all the crew members to bring their own young children to work every day, turning the sets into essentially a giant day-care center), Records’ Max feels wholly believable. He creates an adventurous, imaginative, caring, sensitive boy that can make the audience say to themselves, “yes, THIS is what it felt like to be a kid.” The way Records can switch from ecstatic to crushed at the drop of a hat (i.e. in the opening igloo sequence) is extraordinary, and completely realistic.
1. Jean-Pierre Léaud, The 400 Blows
Léaud deserves the top spot on the list if only for that incredible expression in the film’s last shot, seen in close-up above. Again, this is a character teetering on the edge of adolescence, but that is precisely where Léaud’s Antoine (an autobiographical figure for the director, François Truffaut) gains his power. Antoine has been labelled a troublemaker by pretty much all of the authority figures around him (his parents, schoolteacher, the police), and spends the film vacillating between attempting to fulfill and buck their expectations. Léaud plays Antoine with a kind of solemn detachment, a resourceful and intelligent boy (he adores Balzac) caught between his mischievous past ways and an uncertain future. As Antoine sprints away from the juvenile detention facility where he has been sentenced to serve, running up the beach (he has never seen the sea before), we see that this is a boy who is finally leaving childhood, thrust instead into the limbo of adolescence, trapped between land and water. With “The 400 Blows,” Truffaut acted like a French Dickens, and Léaud gives a performance worthy of any of those sprightly, cunning British rascals.