Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films

The old adage to filmmakers: never work with children or animals. It’s logical and sensible but as this top 10 shows, some of the finest performances have been delivered by children…

10. Thomas Turgoose (This Is England, 2006)

Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films - Top 10 FilmsPlucked from school and given a shot without any experience as an actor, Thomas Turgoose displayed a feisty lost soul in Shane Meadows’ This Is England before confirming his talent (and range) in Meadow’s later film Somers Town.

9. Connor Chapman (The Selfish Giant, 2013)

Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films - Top 10 FilmsConnor Chapman is another, like Thomas Turgoose, who got his shot in film after being hired as a non-professional. The benefits are obvious in Clio Barnard’s brilliant childhood drama The Selfish Giant. The young boy from Bradford gained the role after impressing at a school casting, displaying not simply an ability to read lines but a charisma that could be brought into the fictional character he eventually plays. There’s a raw, unscripted energy to his performance that can often only be gleaned from the untrained.

8. Kirsten Dunst (Interview With A Vampire, 1994)

Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films - Top 10 FilmsLike a few others on this top 10, Kirsten Dunst is one of those young actors who have gone on to a successful career in Hollywood. In other words, they haven’t let childhood celebrity go to their heads. Dunst’s performance in Interview With A Vampire is astonishing in its maturity – after all, she’s playing an adult character in a child’s body.

7. Bill Milner (Son Of Rambow, 2008)

Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films - Top 10 FilmsEnglish actor Bill Milner continues to delight with the innocent wide-eyed roles he’s embodied since emerging on the scene in 2008’s Son of Rambow. He’s enjoyed parts in X-Men: First Class and Is Anybody There alongside Michael Caine, but his debut remains the stand out – fun, unassuming and instantly likeable (a bit like the film itself).

6. Natalie Portman (Leon, 1994)

Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films - Top 10 FilmsLike Kirsten Dunst after the beyond-her-years performance in Interview With A Vampire, Natalie Portman displayed an innate talent for acting (in a strikingly understated way). Leon has very adult themes yet she never looks out of place, or overwhelmed by proceedings. She’s aided by the excellent Jean Reno, the pair making one of Hollywood’s most unique and engaging vigilante duos. Portman has unsurprisingly gone on to do better work as an adult (including Oscar-winning turns) but her performance here remains one of the best of her career.

5. Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon, 1973)

Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films - Top 10 FilmsLike many of her childhood peers, Tatum O’Neal wasn’t as fortunate as some. The talented child-actor’s career could be described as intermittent at best, disappointing at worst. Celebrity was always a tough thing for O’Nealto deal with given that she’s the daughter of actors Ryan O’Neal and Joanna Moore but it can’t be blamed for her adult career failing. Yet, as a child she showed a real zest for the profession, appearing alongside her father as a pair of con artists in Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon for which she became the youngest ever recipient of the Best Actress Academy Award, aged 10.

4. Leonardo DiCaprio (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, 2004)

Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films - Top 10 FilmsFew actors have turned childhood stardom into a long and successful Hollywood career. Whether it be the unfortunate baggage that comes with celebrity (a curse which afflicted actors such as River Phoenix, Macauley Culkin, Edward Furlong and Corey Haim), an inability to turn early success into a career (Haley Joel Osment, Tatum O’Neal, Linda Blair) or a disinterest in the industry (Mara Wilson), the route is not an easy one. Leonardo DiCaprio had the talent, the desire and the wherewithal to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and greatest assets. Although his 1992 breakthrough role in This Boy’s Life is impressive, it is his turn in Lasse Halstrom’s poignant drama What’s Eating Gilbert Grape a year later which earned him an Academy Award nomination and a place on this top 10.

3. David Bradley (Kes, 1969)

Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films - Top 10 FilmsIf you’ve read all the way through this top 10 you’ll notice a trend amongst the British actors. Most of them got their breaks without formal training – it’s either a mark of British cinema’s penchant for raw, social realism or an indication of this writer’s personal tastes…actually it’s a bit of both. However, few would argue about the authenticity of David Bradley’s character Billy Casper, a local lad with a local accent. He’s not so much acting but reacting to the staging director Ken Loach creates for him, but it works and importantly stands the test of time.

2. Linda Blair (The Exorcist, 1973)

The Exorcist - Top 10 FilmsA film as scary as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist should have children kept as far away as possible. But as it happens, a teenager plays the chief antagonist and she’s brilliant. Linda Blair’s career never took off after the success of The Exorcist but her discipline throughout a film that sees her character transform from an innocent, bubbly and attractive young girl into a monster, is astonishing. Caked in make-up and prosthetics, and asked to do some horrendous acts in-character, Blair utilises the tools given to her by the director and special-effects team to produce one of cinema’s most devastatingly frightening creations.

1. River Phoenix (Stand By Me, 1985)

Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films - Top 10 FilmsRiver Phoenix’s performance as Chris Chambers – the heart-of-gold kid from the wrong side of the tracks – is made more poignant because of his untimely early death. The coming of age tale sees four young kids, intrigued by a rumour there’s a dead body lying near the railway line not far from their home town, setting off on a journey of self-discovery. An underlining theme of the story is ambition and aspiration – some of them have it, some of them are happy (or stuck) with their lot – but it hinges on what happens next. Where do their lives lead? Chris Chambers is adamant he has no hope in life because of his upbringing and the tarnished name of his family hanging over his head. Phoenix excels as a toughened kid with a soft centre; a far-too-young patriarch to this group of outsiders. His in-character assumption about his uninspiring future is even more heart breaking given the tragedy that would interrupt his real life. But, on performance alone, there are few childhood scenes as powerful, or perfectly acted, as the “milk money” sequence. Here he admits to stealing money but after owning up and returning it to a teacher, is reprimanded anyway after the teacher claims to know nothing about the money, secretly spending it on herself. Every time I see the scene it brings me close to tears.

Written and Compiled by Daniel Stephens

Over to you: what are your top films featuring child actors and teenagers?

See more great lists about actors on Top 10 Films: Caine | De Niro | DiCaprio | Downey Jr. | Hanks | Hoffman | Streep | Roberts | Schwarzenegger | Oldman | Gandolfini | Freeman | Ford | Eastwood | Dreyfuss | Keitel | Woods

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Melissa Lees Reply

    I agree with your number 1. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      I switched 1 and 2 at the last minute but glad I did. Thanks for reading Mel. 🙂

      • Avatar
        Melissa Lees Reply

        You’re welcome. I’m glad you did! I never get bored of watching that film. I’ve just bought Leon, so I’ll have to see what Natalie Portman is like.

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    Anna Reply

    Good list. Another suggestion: Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      His performances in John Hughes’ films are a delight, that’s for sure.

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    Roger That Reply

    Excellent top 10, Dan – nice and diverse, just the way I like. Interesting that there’s almost as many female actors on here as males. If you reversed it, let’s say best performances by actors over 60, I wonder how many actresses would make that list given Hollywood’s penchant for junking its aged female performers.

    Perfect number one though. And I love the inclusions of Portman, Dunst, DiCaprio, O’Neal and Turgoose.

  4. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    I’ll comment more on the list in a different post, but I AM SHOCKED that you did not include Henry Thomas in ET. He would make my number one of number two. My my Dan. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      He was on my shortlist. 🙂

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    Luke Grima Reply

    Christian Bale – Empire of the Sun
    Asa Butterfield – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
    Henry Thomas – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Henry Thomas was on my shortlist. The other two are definitely worthy additions. I thought The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was particularly good.

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    Matthew Glenn Ward Reply

    No Anna Paquin, The Piano? Come on, she won an Oscar. BTW Kirsten Dunst saved that film. Depp was wooden, but Cruise, amazingly, was decent

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Can’t argue with you there Matt re: Paquin. I also had Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit on my shortlist.

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    Callum Reply

    I was going to say Henry Thomas in E.T. or Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. Not going to argue with your number one though.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Steinfeld was definitely a possibility.

  8. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Terrific list even though you didn’t have Thomas on it. 🙂

    I love your number one of course as we both share a love for SBM. I haven’t seen all of these but the ones I have, I absolutely agree with. If I did my own, I’d certainly have Thomas at number one and others I might include would be Haley Osment from Sixth Sense, Danny Lloyd from the Shining, Dakota Fanning from Man on Fire, Anna Chlumsky from My Girl and maybe even Ricky Schroeder from The Champ.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Some top class performances but funnily enough I never considered the likes of Danny Lloyd or Henry Thomas for the top 10. Great films, great performances, but not quite as striking as the ones that I placed in my top 10.

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    CineGirl Reply

    I’m glad Dan G mentioned Dakota Fanning – she’s been brilliant as a young actress. Saoirse Ronan was great in Hanna too.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      There are a lot of good performances by kids out there. I’m definitely not going to argue with Ronan’s turn in Hanna – it was terrific. I could have easily made this a top 20 list – in fact, if I’d just posted my entire shortlist it would have totalled 27.

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    I’ve seen seven out of 10 of theses, and I agree with them all.

    Other possibilities:

    Sue Lyon for both Lolita (1962) and The Night of the Iguana (1964), when she was around 16 and 18 respectively. In the latter she stood her ground against Burton and Taylor when they were in top form.

    Dominique Swain in the 1997 version of Lolita – she would have been around 16 at the time. I thought she was better than Lyon, but that’s probably because times had changed and director Adrian Lynne was able to make a more accurate version of the book than Kubrick.

    Linda Manz in Out of the Blue – she would have been about 18; you don’t realise how devastating she is until the very end.

    Leo Fitzpatrick in Kids – he would have been 17 … a completely nasty piece of work.

    I agree with Danny Lloyd for The Shining; and Osment, not just for The Sixth Sense, but AI as well … that may well be my favourite performance by a child in an English speaking movie.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Thanks for reading, Mark.

      Yes, Danny Lloyd and Haley Joel Osment are fine additions. Particularly Osment for A.I.

      But I think Osment suffered in comparison to some of the others I featured – particularly those in the lower budget British films – for being too Hollywood-ised in his turns. It’s all a little too prim and proper; too neat and professional.

      Some of kids featured in my list have a raw ability that is still untapped, bringing a quality you can’t really measure to their characters – an authenticity that’s probably more their real personalities than anything fictionalised.

      I wouldn’t say that about Danny Lloyd in The Shining though. But in the “Spielberg film kids rankings”, I’d have Henry Thomas above Osment.

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    Annie Gregg Reply

    Love this top 10! Nice to see a great British contingent featured – who could top David Bradley in Kes.

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    Raul Reply

    Pity Turgoose hasn’t really gone on from that performance. He’s just played the same kid/character in every film.

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    Chris Reply

    Plenty of great choices Dan! Performances that haven’t been mentioned yet, the child in Beasts of the Southern Wild comes to mind, although I can’t pronounce her name Quvenzhané Wallis

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    River Phoenix was such a naturally gifted actor. In his short time he put on some truly exceptional performances.
    Such as the case in Stand By Me at such a young age what a range he had!!

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