Debate Club: child performances

Debate Club: Top 5 child performances in science fiction and fantasy

Contributed by
Mar 14, 2018

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture. 

In this week's installment, we're shining a light on the greatest child performances. But first, a caveat: we are limiting our picks to just the best in fantasy and sci-fi. (If we allowed straight horror films to be part of the list, they'd dominate the rankings, with everyone from The Exorcist's Linda Blair to The Shining's Danny Lloyd to The Babadook's Noah Wiseman getting some love.) Still, that leaves plenty of room for some incredible portrayals.

Casting a kid to be one of your movies' main pillars can be really risky; so much of the story's drama and gravitas hinges on the unpredictable talents of someone who's not even old enough to vote or drive. But these five performances more than deliver. Never cutesy or precocious, these young actors were incredibly poised and compelling as the emotional centerpieces of indelible films. These kids are alright.

Rory Culkin, Signs (2002)

The younger brother of Macaulay and Kieran Culkin, Rory launched onto the scene in impressive fashion, playing Laura Linney's son in the Oscar-nominated 2000 indie You Can Count on Me. He found a much larger audience two years later in M. Night Shyamalan's tense, emotional alien-invasion drama, in which he plays the son of a former man of the cloth (Mel Gibson) grieving the loss of his wife. Signs would also be the launching pad for another accomplished young actor, Abigail Breslin (who plays his younger sister), but Culkin has the more substantial role as a boy who hasn't forgiven his father for letting his mom die. Gibson's such an intense on-screen presence he'd be an intimidating scene partner for most adult actors, but Culkin's honest, empathetic turn proved he could more than hold his own.

Pierce Gagnon, Looper (2012)

There are so many ways that Looper could have gone wrong, but perhaps the most perilous is how much it relied on Gagnon, only five years old when he was cast, to essentially carry the final leg of the film. ("Looking back, I'm kind of terrified that I hinged the success of the backend of the movie on finding someone like Pierce," writer-director Rian Johnson has said.) Johnson chose wisely: Gagnon is sensitive and winsome but also, when he needs to be, incredibly powerful with an otherworldly danger about him. Gagnon handles both sides of the performance with wisdom beyond his years, or really beyond anyone's years. In a film full of big movie stars, Looper remains, in a way, Gagnon's film.

Ivana Baquero, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Guillermo del Toro imagined the girl at the center of his tragic and beautiful war fable to be eight or nine, but he was so blown away by Baquero that he switched his whole movie around to fit her age. (She was 11 during filming.) It was a wise move; there is something fragile and strong about her Ofelia, able to live in the fairytale world and real one and be believable in both. And good lord, can she ever break your heart. Del Toro won the Oscar for The Shape of Water, but this is still his best film… and you don't have to look far from Baquero's open, plaintive face to see why.

Haley Joel Osment, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Yes, yes, the other performance is the more heralded one — and don't get us wrong, it's great too — but for our money, we'll take Osment’s distant, innocent-yet-oddly-sinister, deeply riveting work as the robot boy whose love is real, even if he is not, in Steven Spielberg's flawed and staggering pseudo-masterpiece.

Osment famously trained himself not to blink, and the effect is unnerving. His love for his mother may be programmed, but his intensity is unstoppable. You want to care for him, and also run away screaming. That he is so eternal makes him unknowable and somehow the center of every secret in the universe. The Sixth Sense features a good performance… but for our money, this is Osment's zenith.

Henry Thomas, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Steven Spielberg's paean to friendship and childhood couldn't have worked without the perfect Elliott, a seemingly everyday boy who discovers that we're not alone in the universe. The director knew he'd found his star after auditioning Henry Thomas.

"He's a very controlled, methodical performer who measures what he does and feels what he does and yet broadcasts it in a totally subtle way," Spielberg said around the time of E.T.'s release. "His performance is so controlled, unlike most kid performers, who seem to be giving you 150 percent on every shot. Henry's performance is just a breadcrumb at a time, but he takes you in a wonderful direction to a very, very rousing catharsis."

Forget just sci-fi and fantasy: Thomas gave one of the all-time greatest child performances in E.T., proving to be just as believable interacting with a puppet as he was with his human co-stars. Conveying all of Elliott's wonder, confusion and anxiety, Thomas made his pint-sized character seem universal but also crushingly specific in his insecurities and sweetness. And let's not forget that Spielberg didn't just hit pay dirt with Thomas: as Elliott’s siblings, Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore were also superb, depicting childhood in all its bratty, playful, joyous glory.