Unfortunately, young actors often stick out in films. It’s hard to blame anyone in those situations; these actors are usually out of their comfort zone in such a highly demanding atmosphere, and it’s difficult for directors to truly direct someone so young.
But children are so integral to stories, adding layers that are wholly missing in stories all about adults. So, it’s a wondrous delight when a film features a great performance from a young actor. They’re few and far between, and take extreme talent from both the actor and the storytellers.
In honor of the acclaim that 7-year-old actress Brooklynn Prince is receiving for her turn in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which is currently in theaters, the MovieMinis staff is taking a look at some of its favorite young actor performances of recent times, from actors under 15 years old.
Dafne Keen, Logan (2017) — 10/11 years old
Logan might be billed as Hugh Jackman’s movie, but Dafne Keen steals the show as a young clone of Logan, X-23. She matches Jackman’s trademark intensity in every way, snarling and stabbing just like Wolvie in his prime, maybe even better (she does have those rad foot claws after all). Don’t believe it? Just check out her screen test with Jackman. More than that though, Keen is able to showcase impressive dramatic chops throughout Logan. The film’s ending, though emotional already, is predicated on Keen’s command of the scene. The way she responds to Jackman on an emotional level is stunning to behold — we really do believe that a young girl is losing the father she just recently connected with, and Keen ensures that not a dry eye is left in the theater. Her quoting of the final lines from Shane as she stands over Logan’s grave is easily the most poignant moment in the X-Men franchise. Between Dafne Keen, Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things and Ahn Seo-hyun from Okja, would it be too much to ask for an Avengers-style team-up of pint-sized, kickass actresses? Hell, set it in the X-Men universe. 20th Century Fox, the ball is in your court.
— Harrison Tunggal
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation (2015) — 12/13 years old
Beasts of No Nation is an intense film that presents a harrowing picture of war-torn Africa and the many child soldiers thrust into performing horrific acts. It’s a heart-breaking portrait of the violence committed and the dehumanization these children experience, but the film wisely puts the film’s quietly building emotional wallop on the shoulders of newcomer Abraham Attah. Attah, as a young boy who saw his family die at the hands of an invading war within his hometown, portrays the full character arc of innocence gone awry, to hate-filled violent monster, all the way back to a boy reconciling the loss he has experienced in a short time. It’s a tricky arc for any actor, let alone one who had never acted before. Yet Attah is perfect, and while was shunned by the Oscars, rightfully won the Best Actor award at the Independent Spirit Awards.
— Levi Hill
Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar (2014) — 13/14 years old
Without an amazing performance from Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar potentially collapses in on itself like a forming blackhole. Murph is the heart and soul of the film, the source of both its human vulnerability and its human strength. Her spark, vibrancy in a time of dust storms and food shortages is invigorating. Foy embodies all of that, from the upbeat tempo of her line delivery, to the subtle lift of her eyebrows when adventure calls. Yet, so much of that comes out of the character’s love of her father. As much as she is capable and willing to be independent, her father is her role model and her rock during such difficult times. Thus, his leaving is the greatest of betrayals.
And in that goodbye, a scene of immense tragic poetics, Foy is stunning. She has to traverse so many emotions, from quiet vulnerability to raw desperation to subtle hope to heartbreaking anger. In response to “I’m coming back,” her delivery of the line “when” shatters us. And as she runs out of the house, calling out for her father as he drives away, her tears shatter us.
It’s difficult to truly see how important Foy’s performance is at first. But she genuinely is the basis off of which Jessica Chastain works, granting each of Chastain’s most emotional moments even more weight because of how much we became invested in Murph as a child. And all of the immensely moving moments of Cooper’s guilt are just that much more moving because we found such a strong connection between him and Murph at the beginning of the film. Interstellar is about a father and a daughter, a relationship that defines the veins of the film, a beating heart that doesn’t beat without the brilliance of Mackenzie Foy.
— Kyle Kizu
Jacob Tremblay, Room (2015) — 8 years old
In a film that focuses on psychosexual abuse, familial ostracization and guilt-induced suicidal tendencies, it’s hard, if not impossible, to perceive even a glimmer of hope in the wake of such trauma. Yet somehow, Jacob Tremblay gives an inconceivably optimistic performance in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. As Jack, Tremblay represents the only tether to humanity for the perpetually-victimized Ma (Brie Larson) — the crux of the film’s emotional weight rests on the duo’s shoulders. Tremblay masterfully combines elements of precociousness, curiosity and an indelible level of courage to convey an uneasiness of the unknown, of a world outside the eponymous room, while remaining a pillar of strength for his overwhelmed mother. Larson’s performance relies a great deal on her onscreen son’s presence, and Tremblay somehow intimately commands each scene he’s in not through long-winded dialogue or overt acting, but, rather, restrained emotion. The level of his abuse, of his victimization is just beneath the surface of his wonder with the outside world, and Tremblay hints to it but never reveals it until the moment’s right. It would’ve been easy for a child’s performance to disrupt the rhythm of a such delicately-written melancholic narrative, but when said performance actually acts as the emotional core, you can’t help but be minutely unnerved and immensely impressed.
— Sanjay Nimmagudda
Featured image via A24.