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Actober: 50 Major Child Performances 5/10

The relationship between a child and the parents is an essential experience. It can be a euphoric experience, a volatile affair, spanning across a lifetime, or sadly condensed into only a number of years. Some of the child characters here, represented by some stunning acting, attempt to stop their parent being replaced, they lose them, take on the responsibility of caring for them – one such kid seeks the ultimate guardianship away from adults, and to that of a seemingly young soul.

The Parent Trap

Lindsay Lohan as Hallie Parker / Annie James in The Parent Trap (1998)

If you only think of tabloids when you hear Lindsay Lohan’s name, you really need to go back and watch Nancy Meyers’ 1998 remake The Parent Trap. When you do, you’ll realize why Lohan was considered a star in the first place. She gives a staggering performance as Hallie Parker and Annie James – the twins who meet at summer camp and work together to reunite their estranged parents. The film was a commercial success (bringing in $92.1 million on a $15.5 million budget) and I think much of the credit should go to Lohan. To put it plainly – the film would not work without her. She is the foundation.

Consider the talent it takes to not only do a British accent for one character and revert back to an American for the other, but then to switch them in a way that accounts for the characters’ inability to perfectly replicate the other’s accent. On top of that, she carries the film’s emotional roller coaster of a plot with incredible skill considering that this was her big screen debut and she was only 11 years-old. So you can name any childhood performances you want. I’ll concede that there are many great ones out there. But for my money, I’m taking Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap every single time, and I think that’s a “brilliant beyond brilliant idea.” – – – – – Aaron Charles

The Night of the Hunter

Billy Chapin as John Harper in The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter is a rare example of every single person working on the production being on top of their game, from Charles Laughton’s direction to Stanley Cortez’s cinematography and Robert Mitchum’s standout performance as murderous preacher Harry Powell. However, the whole film hangs on one central element that would have undermined everything had it not been working at the same level. That key element is Billy Chapin’s performance as 10-year-old John Harper. ​Everything changes for John Harper the moment he sees his fugitive father overpowered by the police and Chapin plays John’s reaction as a complex mix of concern, sadness and disappointment. This is the moment Harper realises he is going to have to grow up fast and Chapin makes us feel it.

As well as looking after his sister Harper is also charged with keeping safe the stolen money his father has hidden in his sister’s ragdoll, a task that becomes much more daunting when Harry Powell turns up to claim it. ​As Powell cons his way into the Harper family Chapin has to make us believe that John Harper is the only one who suspects the preacher is up to no good. Chapin achieves this with an surprising level of subtlety for such a young actor, showing his suspicions with the way he looks at Powell and never over-reacting. Through Chapin’s performance we see John Harper grow up as he takes on Powell and is eventually forced to run for his life. It’s an incredible performance from Chapin and without it one of the greatest films ever made would simply not have worked. – – – – – Chris Regan

Christian Bale

Christian Bale as Jim in Empire of the Sun (1987)

Some movies are about a moment in time, and others are about a journey, taking place over the course of months or even years. But how do you tell the latter when you’re working with a child actor, who can only age and accumulate life experience so quickly? If you’re Steven Spielberg and you happen to be directing Empire of the Sun, one possible solution is to cast a young Christian Bale in your lead role. In Spielberg’s World War II epic, Bale plays Jamie Graham, an over-indulged child who is separated from his parents in the wake of the Japanese invasion of China. He is forced to fend for himself and grow up on his own in a story that follows him from his parent’s luxurious mansion to the streets of Shanghai to an internment camp.

What’s most impressive about Bale’s performance is that he is somehow able to convey a physical aging process, playing Jamie over a period of three to four years believably, from an innocent 11-year-old to a world weary 15-year-old. One of the final shots in the film is of Jamie (now Jim) and a close-up on his bitterly exhausted, almost unseeing eyes. It shows without saying a word the weight of his experiences, and it’s difficult to think of another child actor able to convey so much with so little. – – – – – Audrey Fox

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Hushpuppy is like Akira from Nobody Knows, she incredibly resourceful and has adapted to her unusual surroundings. Hushpuppy is a smart kid, who is wise beyond her years and fends for herself as her father Wink (Dwight Henry) is away in hospital. At her audition, Quvenzhané Wallis (who was five years old, though the casting call had been for girls between six and nine) impressed the filmmakers with her reading ability, tremendous scream and ability to burp on command, all of which are used in the film.

Wallis never set out to become an actress. And if you are wondering about her unusual name: The “Quven” combines her parents’ first names, and her parents selected zhané—Swahili for “fairy”—as an homage to her African ancestry. Like Yagira in Nobody Knows, Wallis brings a sense of realism and authenticity to her performance, and is a real natural behind the camera, knowing how to perform and get the viewer’s attention. Wallis managed to charm the academy with her performance and at age 9, she became the youngest Best Actress nominee in history. – – – – – Bianca Garner

Let the Right One In

Lina Leandersson as Eli in Let the Right One In (2008)

There’s a perception of Tomas Alfredson’s remarkable Let the Right One In, that it’s perhaps not wholly a horror, nor heavy on the romance, in fact is an accomplished work thanks to its extraordinary balance of such elements. There is a rich, coming-of-age tale here too, a kind of friendship that hardly blossoms so naturally on screen. Which is, in itself, awe-inspiring, given Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant, who also deserves a huge shout-out), finds companionship in a child vampire. Eli (the commanding, confident Lina Leandersson) is in a similar life scenario to Oskar, though he is bullied, they both appear isolated, and unable to fully function in their worlds.

Leandersson is so assured in the role, a physical resemblance of a child, yet in truth has lived far, far longer. And with that must come a certain amount of wisdom and common sense. Eli is a character brimming with both, varying degrees, of life of a child, as well as the know-how that ought to prepare you for the real world. There’s pain, longing, reassurance, in Leandersson’s performance, in pretty much every move she makes, the emotion in her eyes. Oskar trusts her quicker than he would most people, and we see him shine brighter because of Eli. Both kids deserve their high acclaim, individually they prosper, but also there is an incredible chemistry in their union. – – – – – Robin Write


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