The tainted territories of war and crime are no place for a child. In cinema, or real life. Yet the density of drama is so strong when you mix the two. In some cases, it heightens the comedy. A child can find strength in such scenarios, somehow armed to experience the danger, and act in protection. Be it their home, their family, their place in the world. Whether equipped with a cunning common sense, an unhindered spirit, or a sharp set of piercing claws. These kids face adversity in one way or another, and the art form of cinema demonstrates it in many varied ways.
Aleksey Kravchenko as Flyora in Come and See (1985)
Come and See is a moving, hard to watch Soviet drama based on the book I Am from the Fiery Village, which consisted of the first-hand accounts of people who miraculously survived the horrors of the fascist genocide in Belorussia. The film’s narrative is told from the perspective of a young boy called Flyora, and manages to capture the horrors of war in a way that only a child could. At the start of the film, Flyora is full of enthusiasm and eagerness to join the Soviet partisan forces, with his wide smile and pleasant nature. However, as the narrative develops and the war drags on, Floyra becomes more and more affected by what has occurred and the horrors he has had to endure.
Kravchenko’s performance is incredibly moving and he manages to express so much emotion without every being melodramatic or forced. Come and See had to wait eight years for approval from Soviet authorities before the film was finally produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II. It is worth noting that Come and See was shot in chronological order over a period of nine months. Aleksey Kravchenko said that he underwent “the most debilitating fatigue and hunger. I kept a most severe diet, and after the filming was over I returned to school not only thin, but grey-haired.” – – – – – Bianca Garner
Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McAllister in Home Alone (1990)
Of all the performances that have been covered thus far, I have the great pleasure of discussing what is, arguably, one of the most widely known and beloved performance by a child actor ever. Macaulay’s role as mischievous 8 year old Kevin became practically the dream of any kid in the 90’s – who wouldn’t want the house to themselves during the Christmas season: no parents, no annoying siblings, no rules of any kind? And what young kid wouldn’t want to defend the household from Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern wanting to break in and rob the family blind?
The traps he sets for the two thieves, and how Chris Columbus shoots the scenes like a live-action Looney Tunes episode of Wiley E. Coyote trying to catch the Road Runner, are what people remember the most about this comedy. But it’s Kevin’s arc, where he starts off as a brat who wishes that his parents were gone, to him getting his wish and realizing that the very things that annoyed him about his family are the very things he ends up missing the most, and begins to make baby steps in maturity, that makes Culkin’s performance all the more enduring. It also helps that he was charming as all hell, and the audience ate him up. – – – – – Jonathan Holmes
Martin Stephens as Miles in The Innocents (1961)
In Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents, a 12-year-old Martin Stephens plays Miles, one of two young children living on a large estate where they are watched over by their new governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr). As events unfold, Miss Giddens begins to believe that the estate is haunted, and that the children are possessed by spirits, partly as a result of Miles’ increasingly unsettling behaviour. Somewhat a result of the work of Truman Capote added to the script The Innocents is a supernatural thriller with a strong focus on the psychology of the characters. It is never truly clear whether the hauntings and possession of the children is real or imagined by Miss Giddens, although the latter often seems the more likely explanation.
This delicate balancing act succeeds for the most part on the back of Stephens’ performance. There are several key moments in which Stephens does something extraordinary as the character. There’s the subtly creepy poem he recites invoking dead lords, the overtly sexual goodnight kiss he shares with Miss Giddens, and then his final scene in which he hurls a barrage of insults at the governess. These scenes work because they are a complete contrast to the childlike innocence he embodies in the in-between moments.
The possession feels genuine because of the extreme contrast, and yet Stephens plays both sides of the character with such honesty that it also feels like that character could be acting up on purpose. In interviews, Stephens often plays down his obvious talent citing instead the notion that he could take direction very well, but no matter how it was achieved it is a fact that his performance makes this extraordinary film work. – – – – – Chris Regan
Lukas Haas as Samuel Lapp in Witness (1985)
When little Amish boy, Samuel (Lukas Haas), witnesses a man attacked, then killed, in a public bathroom, the harsh realities of the real world leave a lasting impression. Not so much the mental torment, something an eight year-old should never imagine, let alone see, but the danger he may now be in. One of many great scenes in Peter Weir’s Witness, is when Samuel sees the killer in a photograph. Astonishing for the boy and the detective, John Book (Harrison Ford), for different reasons – for one a traumatic reminder, the other the revelation of a colleagues wrong-doings.
Lukas Haas has the face for such a role. And I mean that in a complimentary way. The big eyes, and almost elfish face, depict a strong sense of innocence and wonder. Haas’ almost muted performance as Samuel is deeply moving, and thoroughly engaging. He manages to omit a natural fear of the big bad world, contrasting emotions between the comfort of the Amish life, and the seemingly turbulent urban arena. Wrapped in cotton wool by his community, and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis), Samuel exudes an enthusiasm, even in the realm of trouble. And the courageous portrayal by Haas only contributes a hefty amount of the film’s dramatic power. – – – – – Robin Write
Dafne Keen as Laura / X-23 in Logan (2017)
When a movie is as violent as this neo-western/superhero is, and it involves a kid who is every bit as deadly as its title character, the casting is crucial. In another word: a Jake Lloyd-type who can get by through charm and wild energy alone won’t match the gritty tone the movie is trying to set, and it ruins the tone of the film. Enter newcomer Dafne Keen, as a young mutant who is being hunted by a mysterious group called the Reavers, cybernetically enhanced men who are rounding up mutants to perform experiments. At first glance, she seems to be a mute, and Logan (Hugh Jackman) who, is slowly dying from adamantium-poisoning, wants nothing to do with her, until the Reavers come, and her powers come to light: adamantium claws and healing abilities, much like old man Wolverine himself.
The journey to take her to a safe haven in North Dakota is the heart of the film, and where she and Jackman shine. Laura, much like Logan, has a dark, violent past that she’s trying to escape; unlike her, he just wants to fade away peacefully, whereas she sees him as a father figure that could guide her along the way. There’s hints and rumors that Keen’s character could return for a spin-off involving Deadpool, and other X-Men properties, and I sincerely hope that is the case. Jackman’s tenure as Wolverine may be at an end, but I want to see where the future of this young actor’s character takes off to next. – – – – – Jonathan Holmes