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Actober: 50 Major Child Performances 7/10

The depiction of children in movies does not often rely on their adult counterparts, per se. Sometimes it is the other way around. The kids compliment the grown-ups in many cases. Separated from parents, they can be self-sufficient in the rules of the world, during war, I mean, even against aliens. Hey, they do pretty damn well, let me tell you.

The 400 Blows

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (1959)

Imagine being 14 years old, and pushed into the spotlight of a radical new film movement. Your face has become iconic, synonymous for a certain time and place, imbedded into the popular culture of art house cinema. That’s what happened to Jean-Pierre Leaud when he was chosen by a then film critic turned director Francois Truffaut to star in his first film The 400 Blows. What can be said further about Leaud’s groundbreaking work in the film that hasn’t already been said? In a way his performance fully encompases the new idealogies and practices of French New Wave style.

As young Antoine Doniel, Leaud taps into his character’s sense of freedom and abandonment, finding joy, and rebellion along the way. This was no doubt he was encouraged by Truffaut who became a mentor and guided him in other films, including four more Antoine Doniel adventures. Think of the film’s famous final still frame of Antoine looking back at what he has left behind, able to move forward, and becoming his own man. It is an ambiguous face, what exactly is he thinking? Fear? Hope? Uncertainty? It is Truffaut showing us with the camera, but it is also Leaud embodying that all of these complicated feelings with his face, leaving an indelible mark in film history. – – – – – Jeremy Robinson

Aliens

Carrie Henn as Rebecca “Newt” Jorden in Aliens (1986)

As a child (yes, I watched Alien and Aliens when I was 10, much too young to be watching those horror/action films) I really loved Ripley, but I also loved the character of Newt who reminded me of well, me. A somewhat feral child, who knew how to survive and didn’t say much (although I wasn’t killing aliens). At the age of 9 Henn starred as Newt, the soot-faced, wide-eyed orphan whose family has been wiped out by xenomorphs, and who develops a strong bond with Ripley. The slow-building Newt-Ripley relationship is key to Aliens.

When Ripley first comes across Newt she is wary of the child, in fact they are skeptical of one another, but eventually develop an almost mother-daughter bond. Newt’s charm manages to win over Ripley which leads to cinema’s best confrontation, when Ripley finally tracked down the abducted Newt, and delivers the line ”Get away from her, you bitch” to the Queen alien. Sadly, Henn never pursued a career in acting despite being excellent in Aliens. Newt remains one of the most memorable characters in the Alien universe, and it’s a crying shame that she was written out. Maybe one day she’ll come back, stranger things have happened in this series of films. – – – – – Bianca Garner

First They Killed My Father

Sreymoch Sareum as Loung Ung in First They Killed My Father (2017)

No wise, nurturing soul can honestly show a child how to deal with the progession of war. For that, sadly, it has to be experienced first hand. And that is a cruel education for anyone, let alone any young children. The American-Cambodian film from last year, First They Killed My Father, sees Angelina Jolie in the director’s chair. A typical project for the actress, given her political outlook, and this marks not only a huge leap of filmmaking form, but is most definitely her finest film as a director. And in that a marvel of a discovery in Sreymoch Sareum, who i s magnificent beyond belief.

Co-written by Jolie, with the protagonist of the film, Loung Ung, from her memoirs, First They Killed My Father is a harrowing, moving motion picture, depicting the torrid time during the Vietnam war, when 7 year-old Ung (Sareum) is separated from her family, with many other children, and they are forced to train as Khmer Rouge soldiers. As the horrors take their toll, Ung might even find some kind of unimaginable solace in dreaming of her mother and father dead, in contrast to the brutal reality she is now part of. Sareum shines bright amidst the doom of the war zone. Capturing the child’s eye view of the struggles, while delivering such overwhelming emotion and courage, on such tiny shoulders. – – – – – Robin Write

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

In Taika Waititi’s film Hunt for the Wilderpeople Julian Dennison plays Ricky, a juvenile delinquent abandoned by his mother who moves in with his foster mother, Bella and her monosyllabic husband, Hec. When Bella dies unexpectedly passes away Ricky runs away into the bush. Hec catches up with him but due to a series of misunderstandings the two become fugitives on the run and so begins one of the most poignant, funny and heartwarming films of recent years.

To successfully tell this story it’s important that the audience likes Ricky and empathises with him despite the fact that the character is belligerent and self-centered. Dennison manages to add some vulnerability to the early scenes so that even when Ricky is unresponsive to his foster mother’s kindness we see enough of who he really is to understand why this is hard for him. He also has perfect comic timing, which makes it easier to like him. In the second act Waititi faces the even greater hurdle of eliciting empathy with the equally belligerent Hec but it’s through Dennison’s performance and his growing respect for his foster-father that he achieves this. Dennison plays Ricky as a multi-layered, complex character with a performance that equals that of veteran actor Sam Neill scene for scene. – – – – – Chris Regan

Dakota Fanning

Dakota Fanning as Lucy Diamond Dawson in I Am Sam (2001)

If they could have pushed aside the reference to Green Eggs and Ham, then I Am Sam could well have been She is Lucy. Or something about her in the sky with diamonds. Truth is, while Sean Penn may have notched up award recognition for his role as a single dad with mental disabilities, the beating heart of this troubled film is 7 year-old Dakota Fanning. An overly zealous, sentimental experience by writer-director Jessie Nelson, I Am Sam relies on the excellent Fanning to deliver some much needed reality and grounded ethics to proceedings. Which she promptly obliges with a defiant turn.

Fanning is Lucy, the daughter of Sam (ah, clever), but it may as well be the other way around. Lucy has the greater intellect, and awareness of the adult world that could separate them (“I said I am sorry, why aren’t you writing that down?!”). Fanning’s performance is profound, honest, and commanding, portraying a child with an immense sense of inquisitiveness and morals. Her tenderness, and those knowing eyes, give Lucy a depth that makes her believable as someone who can think for herself. Even when it comes to her father. This was Fanning’s breakout into the movie world. And was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award, becoming the youngest in history. The Academy, however, have their own problems recognizing coming-of-age talent. – – – – – Robin Write

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