I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
I believe that acting is a very difficult art form, but at the same time, it’s one that can be done by a person of almost any age. Having a natural talent for acting can appear as soon as a person starts speaking. Throughout the history of filmmaking, audiences have been able to watch children tackle a multitude of roles and not only hold their own against their adult co-stars but sometimes even surpass them. Below are 10 examples of great performances by child actors. Since acting has evolved so much over the years, I stuck with films made after 1980, and since the definition of childhood varies, I included only children under the age of 12.
Room - Escape Scene
Movie: Room (2015)
Character Name: Jack
Why it’s Great: The book that the film is based on is told from Jack’s point of view, and so is the movie. Jack has a very specific voice which is a lot more innocent than the average five year old despite the extreme living conditions that he and his mom endure. However, everything he knows is filtered through his mother and his experiences growing up in “Room.” Tremblay is able to pull off this voice in a convincing way. He exudes the confusion that his character faces and the newness of everything he encounters once he and his “Ma” escape from room. He has a hard time telling fantasy from reality because he regards both as real in the same way that we watch TV shows and call them “fake” even though they are occurring right in front of us. Tremblay has a strong script and an equally strong performance from Brie Larson to play off of, but few child actors could do it so convincingly.
Stand out Scene: The escape from Room from his captor's truck to helping the police track down Ma without any knowledge of where he came from.
Interview with a Vampire - Claudia Learns How She Was Made
Movie: Interview with a Vampire (1994)
Character Name: Claudia
Why it’s Great: We’ve seen adults have to revert back to childhood in certain roles, but they have experience to draw from. When children have to act wiser than their years, you can usually see through their performance as a mimicked one. Dunst not only has to act like a woman trapped in a girl’s body, but she also has to play a supernatural character who must undertake grisly acts, such as drinking blood, slitting throats, and eventually being burned to ash by the sun. She makes a very smart choice in her introduction to play as young as possible so that once she is transformed into a vampire and ages over time, you can see the maturity develop through her young eyes. She doesn’t stumble over her flowery dialogue, and she carries herself in her period-specific wardrobe with confidence and poise. It’s a performance that actors of all ages should study and learn from.
Stand Out Scene: Carrying out her plan to kill Lestat.
The Sixth Sense - Car Scene
Haley Joel Osment
Movie: The Sixth Sense (1999)
Character Name: Cole Sear
Why it’s Great: The Academy recognized the strength of this performance by nominating this little boy for Best Supporting Actor. This is not only rare for children but for horror movies as well. He is different in every scene and understands human behavior in terms of how there are many ways to be scared, happy, angry, etc. He is a strange boy but still approachable and easy to root for. You can see the strain that his abilities have on him along with the secretiveness that he maintains in order to keep from worrying his mother about his sixth sense. The performance is also complex in how he treats his therapist, Malcolm Crowe, differently but without letting on to the audience the shocking twist at the end. You can almost feel him trembling during his ghostly encounters, and you ride along with him through all of the jump scares and unsettling images. While this movie is full of strong performances, his is the one that carries the film.
Stand out Scene: Revealing his sixth sense to his mom while waiting in traffic after an accident.
I Am Sam - Lucy Won't Read
Movie: I Am Sam (2001)
Character Name: Lucy Dawson
Why it’s Great: Some child actors hit the ground running right out of the gate. When audiences were introduced to Dakota Fanning, they instantly saw more than the blond haired, blue eyed, innocent girl with a mentally challenged father. She’s intelligent, cunning, and recites her lines as if she had written them herself. Her cuteness factor draws you to her but doesn’t define her performance. She exhibits the guilt that she feels from the part she plays in her father losing custody of her and utilizes every opportunity she can to try to undo it, which sometimes does more harm than good. She’s smart but not so smart that she doesn’t know how to be a kid. You can see her struggle with wanting a normal childhood verses wanting to be with her father and the life she knows along with the confusion that comes from other people tearing her away from that life. She is tenacious and unrelenting in her quest to be with her dad again, and she plays off of Sean Penn’s equally convincing performance as if the two characters are really father and daughter.
Stand out Scene: Being questioned about her dad's ability to parent her during the hearing.
Poltergeist - Robbie Talks to Dr. Lesh
Movie: Poltergeist (1982)
Character Name: Robbie Freeling
Why it’s Great: Oliver Robins never grew up to be the superstar actor like some on this list, but he did make his mark in Hollywood by playing the terrorized middle child in the Freeling family who is nearly swallowed by a tree, strangled by a clown, and sucked into his bedroom closet. Despite being the only boy, he is the most fragile, even before the spirit activity starts to occur. He’s afraid of storms, shares a room with his little sister, and needs to have the closet light on at night. So, he is well versed in being scared when the ghosts come for his sister, Carol Anne, and when he hears her voice through the white noise of the television, his reaction is spot on accurate the way his voice catches in his throat and builds up to full on panic. He also gets a nice exchange in a quiet moment when he and Dr. Lesh discuss what happens after we die. The conversation is played out in whispers, yet he is able to inject just the right amount of childhood curiosity and ideas to really help bring the scene to life. He also gets to do his fair share of scary stunt work which would leave the average kid catatonic, but he knows how to take a beating and keep going.
Stand out Scene: Talking with Dr. Lesh about the afterlife in the dark.
The Florida Project - Moonee's in Trouble
Movie: The Florida Project (2017)
Character Name: Moonee
Why it’s Great: Spend 15 minutes on any playground in America, and you’ll see that children talk, act, and move just like Mooney does in this movie. It helps that many scenes are improvised, but with weak actors, that can lead to wooden performances. The fact that Prince can act just as casual with the cameras rolling as she can in real life shows her natural talent for acting. It also allows for one of the most natural performances ever given on screen. Her energy and mischievous nature is something that we’ve all seen (or been) before while playing with our friends, especially unattended. She’s got a ballsy way of talking to adults and an engaging way of telling a story. She’s theatrically authentic and is the soul of the film along with its voice. Her break down into hysterics at the end is one of the most realistic moments ever portrayed on screen.
Stand out Scene: Breaking down to her best friend when she realizes she's about to be taken away by child services.
Logan - Laura Speaks
Movie: Logan (2017)
Character Name: Laura
Why it’s Great: For someone with very few acting credits, it’s amazing to watch Keen essentially slip into the shoes of Hugh Jackman and effortlessly play a female version of a role he has been perfecting for 17 years. She is fierce and deadly yet has the heart and emotion needed to make you root for her. For over half of the movie, she has no lines and relies on her body language to carry her to the third act where she slowly opens up, first in Spanish and then English. The fact that she is multilingual, can fight, and act proves that she was born to play this role as it was written. Every choice she makes is brilliant. Every word she speaks is confident and steady. What’s equally nice to hear is how much fun she had playing the part, and that enjoyment shows through in her work.
Stand out Scene: Revealing to Logan that she can speak by going off on a tirade in Spanish and hitting him in the face to get him to take her to Eden.
Mermaids - Ending Scene
Movie: Mermaids (1990)
Character Name: Kate Flax
Why it’s Great: Ricci is a scene stealer, as she would come to be in other roles throughout her career, but she is so young in this part, full of personality and energy, holding her own against a singing legend and a teen idol. She delivers her lines with enthusiasm and a commanding presence that brightens every scene she is in. Her obsession with water and swimming isn’t played just as a one-dimensional defining characteristic. It tells so much about her, how she is driven, disciplined, and her own person which is encouraged by her free-thinking mother. So, when tragedy strikes, it’s nail-biting to think that this little girl might not make it and of all ways, drowning. The danger she encounters, throws the story for a loop and ultimately resolves the conflict between her mother and sister. When she does recover, she is unchanged by the event as seen by her dance at the end of the film followed by her trying to bring the pool into the house so that she can swim.
Stand out Scene: Discussing her love of the ocean at dinner.
E.T. - Elliot's Apology
Movie: E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Character Name: Elliot
Why it’s Great: Elliot is one of those iconic childhood roles that is burned into everyone’s mind. While Drew Barrymore became the superstar, rightfully so, this is Henry’s movie to carry, and he does so quite convincingly. He is a loaner, an unintentional trouble maker, and above all, lonely boy until E.T. comes into his life. When the two meet, it’s up to him to help bring the animatronic puppet to life by treating him like another actor. It is said that he cried real tears during his audition in order to get the part, and by the end of the movie, he has audiences crying when he has to say goodbye to his friend who he has rescued, bonded with, and helped to send home.
Stand out Scene: Apologizing to E.T. when he thinks his friend has died.
My Girl - Thomas J's Funeral
Movie: My Girl (1991)
Character Name: Vada Sultenfuss
Why it’s Great: This performance grabs you in the first scene when Chlumsky, as Vada, breaks the fourth wall to tell you about who she is in a nutshell by describing her hypochondria in her story about the chicken bone that is stuck in her throat followed by her dad ignoring her disclosing to him that she thinks she has cancer. From there, all of her voiceovers and observations are captivating and humorous. Few stories capture what it’s like to be an 11-year-old girl on the verge of her teenage years but still lingering in childhood. So, who better than to get an 11-year-old to convey that? From exploring her obsession with death from growing up in a funeral parlor to dealing with the real loss of her best friend is the perfect role for Chlumsky to exhibit a wide range of emotions, and she nails it in every earnest and devastating scene.
Stand out Scene: Crying over the casket at Thomas J's funeral.
What are your favorite movie performances from child actors? Leave your answers in the comments below!
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on November 15, 2018:
Yes, that's a good one too. She helps sell the twist really well.
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on November 13, 2018:
I absolutely loved Room. It was really sad and powerful. Dakota Fanning has also been great in all the movies she's in. She was especially fantastic in Hide and Seek with Robert DeNiro.
Readmikenow on September 13, 2018:
You've listed some great movie performances. I also like Anna Paquin in "The Piano" as well as Tatum O'Neal in "The Bad News Bears."
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 12, 2018:
Your approach is original, informative and interesting. I've seen "Room" and "Sixth Sense" but you make me want to watch them again, and to watch all the others also. I appreciate your observation on the child actors.
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on August 31, 2018:
I have. Yes, they definitely reminded me of the E.T. kids. Thanks for the comment!
Dina AH from United States on August 31, 2018:
Oh, E.T. destroyed me. It came out when I was really young and I still remember snippets from it. Have you seen J.J. Abram's Super 8? The kids in that movie have wonderful performances as well!