Some children are honored or burdened with carrying the world on their shoulders. Given such responsibilities might well alter the child’s eye view of their world. Of our world. They can find strength, they can find despair. A couple of the selections here bring these to the screen unforgettably. A couple more are brilliant examples of how gifted or troubled children are depicted in the horror genre.
Keisha Castle-Hughes as Paikea Apirana in Whale Rider (2002)
Gorgeously shot in Whangara, Whale Rider is a New Zealand film directed by Niki Caro from Witi Ihimaera’s novel. It’s a beautiful film, in all its corners of family drama, Hawaiki legend of the Whale Rider, capturing a truly moving depiction of Māori culture and the power of descendants. As Paikea (Pai), 12 year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes is mesmerizing. The heavy burden of the story’s character is extraordinarily handled by a composed, poignant performance. And as a small film like Whale Rider, Castle-Hughes pleasantly surprised the film world when she became the youngest, at the time, nominee for the Best Actress Oscar.
Aspiring to be the next in line to be chief of the tribe that has been passed down through generations, Pai’s largest emotional obstacle is her grandfather, Koro. A stubborn man, so firmly buried with the tradition of the male-only role, he fails to acknowledge the true calling and ambition of Pai. Castle-Hughes is stunning, there are moments here that brought tears to my eyes and shivers down my spine. The scene as she stands at school, choking up as she pays tribute to her grandfather, who has not turned up to see her, is heartbreaking. It is but one of many, wonderful moments. – – – – – Robin Write
Noah Wiseman as Samuel Vanek in The Babadook (2014)
In The Babadook Noah Wiseman plays 6-year-old Samuel. To say Samuel has an overactive imagination is an understatement. He likes to make his own weapons to fight imaginary monsters, and this obviously causes problems, particularly when he takes those weapons to school. The Babadook of the title is a monster from a picture book that Samuel is convinced is real, much to the frustration of his mother, Amelia, played by Essie Davis. What’s great about the film is that ultimately the Babadook is much more a creature of Amelia’s imagination than it is Samuel’s invention, and that the story is really about a single mother struggling with the resentment she has towards her son.
There is a subtle, but hugely important, shift that has to happen in The Babadook for the audience to go along with the story, and also understand the subtext. We have to see Samuel from Amelia’s point of view during the first half, and it’s the strength and conviction of Noah Wiseman’s performance that makes this work. We believe that he is a troubled young boy, who is prone to violence, and we empathise with Amelia’s resentment. It is perfectly believable to Amelia and to us, that Samuel is the one putting shards of glass in their food, or defacing photographs of his deceased father. However, as Amelia becomes more and more distressed, we begin to see Samuel in a different light. This shift from antagonist to victim is a stunning achievement by such a young actor, and the film absolutely would not work without. – – – – – Chris Regan
Haley Joel Osment as Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense (1999)
An actual crime is how frequently Haley Joel Osment’s performance in The Sixth Sense is boiled down to, “I see dead people.” Cole Sear is so much more than that! Osment is successful in this role partially because he seems himself to be a weird little kid who couldn’t quite relate to his peers. But more substantially, because his performance indicates a unique understanding of who Cole is as a person and what he is going through, as well as the more philosophical, abstract themes of the film.
This is a kid who is forced to see and interact with ghosts on a daily basis, and somehow Osment seems to get the psychological impact that would have on someone. With this, it goes beyond a director simply telling their child actor, “look sad” or “look scared.” What we have in The Sixth Sense is a child who has seemingly done a fairly nuanced character study and is able to adeptly translate that into his on-screen performance. – – – – – Audrey Fox
Yūya Yagira as Akira Fukushima in Nobody Knows (2004)
As the eldest child, it is left to Akira to care for his younger siblings, after his mother leaves them in a cramped apartment to be with her new lover. Based on a true story, which has an even more tragic outcome than the film’s heart breaking ending, Nobody Knows is a beautiful story of the power of the bond between siblings. Akira has to provide for them as best he can while concealing the situation from any adult authority, especially the landlord, who is aware of only one child in their apartment.
Through Yagira’s powerful performance, he manages to capture the anxieties and insecurities that the oldest child encounters (speaking from experience here). Akira does his best to entertain his siblings, and keep them calm, lying about where his mother is and trying to feed the kids on a very tight budget. It must be noted that the child actors in the film were non-professionals, and their performances give a sense of authenticity and realism to the film. Yūya Yagira’s excellent work paid off as he became the youngest Best Actor winner in the history of the Cannes Film Festival. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Henry Thomas as Elliott in E. T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
How many of us in our youth ever felt lonely, sad, or angry? Maybe we were picked on by the older kids, or we had that unrequited school crush, or maybe our parents divorced and our world just fell apart. For many of us, Henry Thomas in E.T. The Extraterrestrial, embodies so much of the pain of growing up and getting through that rough patch whatever it may be. In Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece about childhood, where the grown ups remain faceless for the majority of the film, as if they stem from a “Charlie Brown” cartoon, Thomas speaks for the child in all of us.
As Elliot, the lonely middle child of divorce, he is our conduit into the magical world of playing with “Star Wars” toys in our bedroom, holding a thermometer to a lamplight in order to fake sick from school, or riding a bike through a colossal, and endless forest. The difference is, Elliot has a little Alien friend, who is just as alone as he is. Spielberg has a wonderful way of grounding fantasy elements with reality, and with Thomas he brings out a beautifully natural performance, that keeps this film grounded in its realism. The film is about empathy, and feelings, and Thomas invites us to share those feelings, just as E.T. does. With Elliot, Thomas creates the childhood everyman. – – – – – Jeremy Robinson