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Small Wonders: Best Performances by Child Actors
by Debbie Moon

Child actors. The very words strike fear into the bravest film fan's heart. Squeaking voices fill your head, visions of Macauley Culkin float before your eyes. But, now and then, a juvenile comes along who actually deserves to be called an 'actor'. So, if you're trying to erase memories of Home Alone, try some of the following (in reverse order)...

Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker, in Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Hmmm, abandoned this one to the Dark Side, had you? Well, he was working with a script determined to present him as a characterless innocent, in a highly complex film with extensive bluescreen work. A tricky business for a 10-year-old. And if you're still not convinced, check out the scene where Anakin's decidedly wooden friends tease him about his homemade racing pod. Compared to them, Lloyd is practically Olivier.

Drew Barrymore as Gertie, in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Recently restored to the big screen, Spielberg's alien opus was the big break for Barrymore, a scion of a famous Hollywood family who made her debut in Ken Russell's Altered States at the age of four. The alcohol and drug problems which followed rather overshadowed her performance, but her return to form in adulthood - and a telling determination to produce her own work and control her own career - provide a happier epilogue.

Elijah Wood as Mikey Carver, in The Ice Storm (1997)
Back when Middle-Earth was still a twinkle in Peter Jackson's eye, the boy who would be Frodo was recreating the 1970s in Ang Lee's devastating family drama. The 16-year-old Wood is disturbingly believable as a teenager prematurely sexualised by a society still struggling with the legacy of the 1960s. In a juvenile two for the price of one, a young Christina Ricci (in a role turned down by Natalie Portman) provides sterling support.

Hayley Mills as Gillie, in Tiger Bay (1959)
Daughter of actor John Mills and his playwright wife, Hayley began acting at boarding school to overcome shyness. Quite a difference from Cardiff, tearaway Gillie was her first professional role. An extraordinarily gritty film for its day, Tiger Bay takes in sex, poverty and domestic violence, all seen through the eyes of a child. Mills captures the urban youngster's strange blend of toughness and innocence perfectly, and went on to a long career in film and theatre.

Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer, in Rushmore (1998)
Just scraping in as a juvenile (he was born in 1980), Schwartzman's hilarious turn as a precocious teen, trapped in a love triangle with his teacher and a local millionaire, launched not only his career, but that of co-writer and director Wes Anderson. A strange combination of Noel Coward and 'Dennis the Menace', Max is a unique event in the long history of screen teenagers, and Schwartzman's comic flair has never been better used.

Anna Paquin as Flora, in The Piano (1993)
The second youngest Oscar winner of all time, 11-year-old Paquin's astonishing performance was hailed as a sensation across the world. The only child in a world of emotionally shipwrecked adults, she acts as translator and go-between in a world beyond her understanding. A down to earth soul who keeps her Oscar hidden in her wardrobe so her friends won't feel intimidated, Paquin seems to have avoided the perils of early fame by putting her career on hiatus until adulthood. With a promising role in the X-Men franchise, her star is definitely in the ascendent.

Natalie Portman as Matilda, in Leon (1994)
'Discovered' in a pizza parlour at the age of 11, Portman was initially encouraged to consider modelling. But she chose acting and, two years later, made her debut in Luc Besson's underrated crime drama. Daughter of a drug dealer killed by a corrupt cop, Matilda takes shelter with reclusive neighbour Leon (Jean Reno) - a contract killer. Their subsequent relationship - half parental, half erotic - is an acting tour de force that lifts a formulaic thriller into the realms of classic cinema.

Jamie Bell as Billy, in Billy Elliot (2000)
No doubt all the classmates who mocked Jamie with the nickname 'Ballerina Boy' are thinking twice about their own choice of hobbies now. Bell's film debut proved him to be not only an excellent dancer, but a natural and passionate actor. A genuine Northern lad, he brings a blunt believability to a story that could otherwise have seemed like a Hollywood fantasy, and surely has a great future ahead of him.

Haley Joel Osment as Cole Sear, in The Sixth Sense (1999)
Well, you knew he'd be in here somewhere. Horror is a difficult business for the most skilled of actors; and for an 11-year-old to get (and deserve) an Oscar nomination for a role as a shivering, alienated psychic who knows the one thing that the audience doesn't is near miraculous. Equally fine performances in two subsequent, inferior, films bode well for his adult career.

Jodie Foster as Iris, in Taxi Driver (1976)
It's hard to believe that Foster was a mere 14 when she gained her first Oscar nomination as sassy, damaged child-hooker Iris in Scorsese's scorching political drama. She started in commercials at the age of two, landing a regular TV role four years later, and subsequently became the first woman to win two Oscars before the age of 30. Her talent, emotional stability, and ability to pick high quality, often adventurous roles has made her a true star, and the ultimate role model for any child actor.
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