Some inspirational child performances over the years, have had foundations in the character’s background, culture, location. Not only that, but unforeseen circumstances, yanked from one portion of young life to the next. Some of the kids here suffer hardships, live through them, and even come out the other side much wider because of them.
Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis in Atonement (2007)
Some child performances exist as a one-off lightning in a bottle moment, with that particular child actor never to be heard from again. Then there are those dazzling youth performances which give us our first tantalising taste of a stunning career to come. Such is the case with Saoirse Ronan’s sensational (and Oscar-nominated) performance in Atonement, which set the tone for many stellar future performances.
Stealing focus from experienced heavyweights Kiera Knightley and James McAvoy in every scene, 12 year-old Ronan is hauntingly breathtaking as Briony, the young girl caught in the chaos of a misunderstanding that will have devastating consequences. Her narcissism knows no bounds, but it’s all a mask for her crippling insecurities, leading to a decision that will haunt Briony for the rest of her life. Ronan somehow finds the pathos in an entirely unlikable character, creating a performance that’s wildly impressive from someone so young. But it was merely a glimpse into the brilliant career ahead of her that still continues to this day. – – – – – Doug Jamieson
Sarah Bolger as Christy in In America (2003)
Growing up watching movies, discovering their appeal, I was captivated by the power they can have on you emotionally. Movies can imprint on you like water to a sponge. Jim Sheridan’s heavily personal In America (affectionately co-written with his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten), did just that to me – I simply could not resist it. When an Irish immigrant family enter the United States to turn their lives around, Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their two young daughters Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger), arrive with unimaginable, lamenting baggage.
The girls seem to carry the hope, while the parents tackle the grief, in their new rough neighborhood home in New York City. As the eldest, perhaps Christy has to be the more headstrong. And in Bolger’s captivating, poignant turn, Christy not only inspires us, but also has our heart to-and-froing. The girls find a unique platform of expression through detached artist Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), and with that are wishes to be granted, goodbyes to be said, and new beginnings to embrace. It’s an unmissable performance, from both girls be told, but it’s almost Christy’s story, affecting and true, and one you’re heart invests in the whole journey. – – – – – Robin Write
Tatum O’Neal as Addie Loggins in Paper Moon (1973)
It was Polly Platt who suggested pairing real life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, for Peter Bogdanovich’s latest film. He approached eight-year-old Tatum O’Neal to audition for the role, although she had no acting experience. Bogdanovich had recently worked with Tatum’s father Ryan O’Neal on What’s Up, Doc?, and decided to cast them as the leads. The relationship between the two O’Neal’s is electrifying, and they bounce their lines of dialogue off each oher effortlessly.
Tatum is quick witted, and her character has some of the best and most quotable lines ”I want my two hundred dollars.” ”I need to go to the shithouse.” and my personal favourite, ”She must have a bladder the size of a peanut.” Bogdanvich went to great lengths, sometimes requiring as many as fifty takes of some of her scenes, in order to capture the “effortless” natural quality for which Tatum was critically praised. The hard work from the director and most notably the young actress paid off. Tatum O’Neal was 10 years old when she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in this movie, making her the youngest person ever to win an Oscar in a competitive category. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in True Grit (2010)
The fascinating thing about Hailee Steinfeld’s portrayal of Mattie Ross in True Grit is she’s a bit much. Unlike most children her age, Mattie doesn’t play around, she doesn’t have fun, and she doesn’t like to waste time. She’s all business, and it makes sense considering she is on the hunt for the man who killed her father. The Coen Brothers themselves even called Mattie “a bit of a pill”, but there’s something to admire in all that. Her no-nonsense attitude gives us an unsentimental heroine we can all root for, and gives the dim-witted bad guys someone to fear.
Mattie is all over this film, and Steinfeld demands our attention. Even when she shares scenes with Jeff Bridges’ larger than life Rooster Cogburn, or Matt Damon’s goofy looking U.S. Marshall, Steinfeld remains fearless and unmoved. At times her strong-headedness is played for humour, such as the highlighted scene where she negotiates for her father’s ponies and saddle. The Coens are excellent wordsmiths and it’s probably a great feat for any actor to wrap their mouth around their lines. Steinfeld dusts off her dialogue like any seasoned Shakespearean actor would (this was her first feature film). For her troubles, she received an Oscar nomination, and made one of the great debuts in film, I’m sure Mattie Ross would approve. – – – – – Jeremy Robinson
Güneş Şensoy as Lale in Mustang (2015)
Most definitely an ensemble piece, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s majestic Mustang owes a hell of a lot of gratitude to the five girls playing the confined sisters at the story’s heart. As Lale, the youngest, Günes Nezihe Sensoy could well be the stand-out, captivating as she is, also benefits from the most narrative and screen time, as well as the girl providing the film’s voice-over. That is to take nothing at all away from the others, with Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, and Ilayda Akdogan all excelling in creating this wonderful onscreen unit – each with their own drama to unfold. Excellent comparisons to films like The Virgin Suicides, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dogtooth, have their merits, but the intriguing, enveloping tale of these wild horses ever so eager to stray, provides its own originality in story-telling – these young actresses make it their own.
The Turkish sisters drape over one another in the heat, long limbs and hair locking their bond tighter – we too dread any separation from each other, a fear prominent in such a repressive culture. Günes Nezihe Sensoy displays their plight with plenty of room for charm, inner strength, and an almighty thirst for life. Tender or vulnerable as they seem, or indeed ought to be, their defiant spirits wash over us. Even as Lale’s playful demeanor is still there on the surface – this is who she is – little Sensoy stands tallest. Its a fine performance from the actress, balancing childlike wit with impulsive morals. From spitting in the tea of unwanted guests, or yearning distraction from confinement, to being overjoyed by a mere football game, or hopeful moments of pure young euphoria. – – – – – Robin Write