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.
Young Actor Award
Most jobs that adults have take years of training, knowledge, a grown body, and a mature mindset to pull off. In my article, 10 Great Movie Performances from Child Actors, though, I show that this is not the case with acting. Somehow, certain children are able to pull off the task of memorizing lines, hitting marks, and exhibiting emotions just as well as adults. Maybe it’s their innocence or their heightened imaginations that gives them an advantage, but there are plenty of talented child actors that have given strong performances over the years so I felt like one list of 10 wasn’t enough. Even in constructing this list, I found myself leaving off dozens of other kids who have made an impression on the big screen. For now, though, here are 10 more great movie performances by child actors.
Matilda sad scene.
Movie: Matilda (1996)
Character Name: Matilda Wormwood
Why It’s Great: Wilson proved herself a capable scene-stealing actress in Mrs. Doubtfire, but this role required more than just cuteness to pull off. Matilda had to be strong yet vulnerable, vengeful yet good, loyal and caring. A long literary history proceeds this film, and Wilson, a fan of the book prior to the film (according to her memoir) brought her admiration for the character into the role while making it her own.
Standout Scene: The scene that always gets me is when Matlida hides out in her closet after her father rips up a beloved library book. She cries onto the pages of her book while holding her rag doll, showing how lonely this little girl really is and how she relies on books to carry her away from her miserable family life. There’s no dialogue, but her performance is genuinely heartbreaking.
To Kill A Mockingbird - Scout stops the mob.
Movie: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Character Name: Scout Finch
Why It’s Great: This is another beloved literary figure that was going to take a strong performance of a very young girl to pull off. Mary is the perfect tomboy from her ink-black mane of shaggy hair to her baggy overalls. The clothes fit her personality like a glove and help her to blend in as one of the boys while still being smartly cautious of their rambunctious schemes. She also has to carry the story despite the fact that she’s not involved in many of its tent pole scenes, but her bystander status filters the events through her young eyes and puts a unique spin on very adult situations.
Standout Scene: Scout’s quick thinking helps to break up the mob that could potentially hurt or even kill her father as he stands between them and his African American defendant on trial for rape in the deep south. She’s genuine and earnest as she singles out a familiar face in the crowd and takes the tension down to a more level-headed mentality among the crowd.
Jurassic Park - T-Rex Scene
Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello
Movie: Jurassic Park (1993)
Character Names: Lex and Tim
Why It’s Great: This brother-sister duo serves as the relatable kid characters in a movie about man-eating dinosaurs on the loose on a remote island. They have to be likeable and vulnerable but still instrumental to the plot. Lex brings her computer skills, and Tim is armed with his dinosaur knowledge as they make their way to safety through the dangerous park whose security systems go down after a nasty tropical storm. They’re nerdy but in an approachable way. They each give a strong individual performance, but when they play off of each other, they strike gold. They bicker and squabble like a real brother and sister but also have their backs like siblings tend to do as well.
Standout Scene: The famous T-Rex attack leaves first time viewers genuinely fearing for the kids’ lives as they come face to face with the six-inch teeth of the Rex through nothing more than some thick glass before the car is flipped onto its roof and stomped into the ground, threatening to drown the kids in muddy water. Their reactions of paralyzed followed by hysteric terror would be unmatched by any two adult actors yet with the added benefit of their youth to add to their vulnerability.
The Secret Garden - Mary's tantrum.
Movie: The Secret Garden (1993)
Character Name: Mary Lennox
Why It’s Great: She’s bitter, curious, and smart, and she plays Mary as if she has lived through her neglected childhood and lonely existence in her uncle’s estate. She has no qualms about ordering adults around, talking back, or putting her bratty cousin in his place. She is also able to exhibit kindness and empathy for others once she lets her guard down, and that makes her a character you can root for. That’s not an easy task, and she pulls it off effortlessly.
Standout Scene: Maberly as Mary loses it on young servant, Martha, after she admits that she thought that Mary would look like a native Indian girl when they first meet. Mary throws an epic tantrum, insulting Martha and throwing herself into hysterics without actually crying, since her inability to cry is a major element of her character.
The Parent Trap Movie Trailer
Movie: The Parent Trap (1998)
Character Name: Hallie Parker and Annie James
Why It’s Great: One girl pulling off two characters in the same movie with two different personalities and accents and for most of the movie pretending to be the other is an often overlooked feat that Lohan has pulled off as a young actress. She exhibits her range, her ability to understand characters and how they would react individually to a situation. Of course, she had help from the filmmakers along with some impressive special effects and a body double, but the performance that makes it onto the screen makes you forget that this movie is a lighthearted Disney comedy for pre-teen girls.
Standout Scene: The revelation between the two girls that they are twins while isolated in their own cabin at summer camp goes from a rivalry between enemies to a comraderie in which the two open up to each other and eventually a reunion eleven years in the making that spans multiple emotions and tonal shifts that Lohan kills as a first time film actress.
St. Vincent - Oliver's compassion shows, even in his posture.
Movie: St. Vincent (2014)
Character Name: Oliver
Why It’s Great: It takes a smart kid to play a smart kid, and you can tell that Lieberher is an intelligent person, but it’s hard to be both smart and relatable. Where he shines through is in his vulnerability, his gentle delivery, and his sympathy for others. He plays a boy going through a rough time, yet he focuses his energy on making others feel better and trying to understand what they are going through. He also has to hold his own against big time comedians like Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy and Oscar-nominated actors like Naomi Watts. So, the fact that he can stand out among these A-list stars proves that he could have a long, respected career in acting.
Standout Scene: Oliver spends the afternoon at his neighbor, Vince’s, house after school when he discovers that he’s locked out of his house before his mom comes home. As a result, he and Vince have a conversation that tells each other all they need to know about the other. His timing, sincerity, and thoughtfulness are all on point in this scene, and you can tell that these two are going to have fun together.
Little Miss Sunshine Clip
Movie: Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Character Name: Olive Hoover
Why It’s Great: Despite being the driving force behind the plot, the character of Olive tends to get shoved into the background of the movie. However, there are plenty of places for Breslin to shine, and she does, showing her character’s innocence, drive, and protection from the heavy burdens felt by the other characters on not only being pulled away from their problems to embark on this trip to her beauty pageant but also to bring those problems with them and have to deal with them en route to the event. Olive isn’t needy or spoiled. She’s just unaware of the strain that the trip is putting on everyone else. Her only concern is not disappointing her father by losing the competition, and later we see her truly understand the odds that are against her stringy-haired, pudgy body goes up against the stick-thin, spray-tanned competition. Still, she doesn’t waiver in her enthusiasm to compete, and she gives it her all in the dance she performs during the talent competition which is edgy enough to earn boos from the audience but strong enough to bring her broken family back together.
Standout Scene: In the scene where she confesses to her grandpa that she doesn’t want to be “a loser” because of her dad’s disdain for losers, Breslin tears up with the quiet trepidation that any little girl would exhibit in this moment. It’s not overdramatic. It’s full of understanding and empathy between actor and character. Surely a little girl involved in the movie industry understands rejection and the fear that accompanies it as well as an aspiring young beauty queen from Albuquerque.
Marc Pickering in "Sleepy Hollow"
Movie: Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Character Name: Young Masbath
Why It’s Great: In his role as Young Masbath, Marc Pickering is at that age where childhood cuteness isn’t a crutch that he can lean on, but he is still going to stand out from his adult cast mates. So, he plays him as a brave but eager boy, bent on revenge and acceptance from his new guardian, Ichabod Crane. He’s always on hand to volunteer for an outing, break the windows of a church to shoot at a headless horseman, and be willing to help save the day when called on to do so. He's never over-dramatic or wooden. He plays the dutiful son in an era where servants know their place, and his understanding of this is mature and understated.
Standout Scene: While investigating the Sleepy Hollow murders in the Western Woods, Ichabod and Masbath come across a witch who lives in a cave deep in the woods. Masbath takes the lead in in questioning the witch about her knowledge of the horseman legend before retreating back to the horses while she takes Ichabod inside. He’s brave but scared and serious but funny all in a few short sentences.
Hook - Jack's breakdown.
Movie: Hook (1991)
Character Name: Jack Banning
Why It’s Great: Korsmo plays the perfect early 90’s boy, one with an attitude stemming from his feelings of neglect by his overworked dad. He craves attention and gets it by doing the opposite of everything his father tells him to do. He’s mouthy and sarcastic in that pre-teen not quite moody teen angst way but heading in that direction. It’s no surprise that Hook is able to persuade him to join his side until his dad is able to win him back.
Standout Scene: Hook attempts to brainwash Jack by calling him out on his animosity towards his father. This leads Jack to break down in tears with a confession about his despair in his father’s pathetic first attempt to save them from the Neverland Pirates.
What are your favorite child actor movie performances? Leave your answers in the comments below!
Jess on February 23, 2019:
I love Anna Paquin in “The Piano”, Tatum ONeal in “Paper Moon” and Christina Ricci in “Mermaid”
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 27, 2018:
Excellent job of promoting these movies. You made me interested in watching several that I have never watched. Thanks for the list.