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SYFY WIRE Knock at the Cabin

7 best kid performances in M. Night Shyamalan movies, from 'The Sixth Sense' to 'Knock at the Cabin'

Shyamalan is a master at finding and cultivating young actors in his films.

By Tara Bennett
The. Sixth Sense (1999); Knock at the Cabin (2023); Unbreakable (2000)

Debate writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's twist endings and the execution of his high concept premises all you want, but something you can't debate is the quality of the performances he gets out of younger actors. Going back to his very first theatrical film, Wide Awake (1998), Shyamalan has not only written many a script featuring important kid roles, but he really gets some stellar work from his young thespians. 

Take his latest film, Knock at the Cabin. It opens with tiny Kristen Cui as Wen. She's playing alone in the woods, collecting grasshoppers in a large jar, while on vacation with her dads, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). And then a large stranger appears, introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista) and gently engages her in conversation. The whole premise of the audiences buying into the film hinges on their fraught but non-threatening interaction. And that's an exceptional risk for any filmmaker to take, relying on the talents of a first-time actor like Cui. But she knocks it out of the park from beginning to end which further proves the skills Shyamalan has for identifying the potential in kid actors, and then showcasing that in his emotionally heavy films.

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With Cui's performance front and center in many minds right now, SYFY WIRE is taking a look back at other child (age 12 and under) performances in Shyamalan films that not only left an impression, but also kickstarted their acting careers.

Joseph Cross as Joshua Beal in Wide Awake (1998)

Wide Awake (1998)

Shyamalan plucked young Joseph Cross to lead his first feature film, Wide Awake. Having first appeared the year before in a television movie, Wide Awake was one of his very first big screen roles. As a semi-autobiographical story, Cross was essentially playing some aspects of young Shyamalan's experiences. He does so in an endearing and earnest way. His character, Joshua, is a picked on, Catholic school boy who makes it his mission to find God. Cross anchors the emotional soul of the film, which opened the door for Shyamalan's early commercial successes. Cross continues to act regularly in projects like Big Little Lies and Mank.

Haley Joel Osment as Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense (1999)

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense launched Shyamalan and Haley Joel Osment's careers to the stratosphere. Coming off the modest success of Wide Awake, Shyamalan once more penned a child character that would be the emotional linchpin of his spec script about a child that sees dead people. Osment already had a solid resume of television guest roles and films like Forrest Gump under his belt. But it's his vulnerable turn here, as quietly tortured Cole Sear that made him a household name. Watching him bond with his child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), Osment gives a moving performance that is now maybe most remembered for his line: "I see dead people." He went on to get an Academy Award nomination for the role and continues to work in both film and television and is a much sought after voice actor for projects as varied as Star Trek: Lower Decks and the upcoming Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie.

Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph Dunn in Unbreakable (2000)

from left: Robin Wright, Spencer Treat Clark in UNBREAKABLE (2000)

Many just remember the rivalry between David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) in Unbreakable. But so much of David's personal angst and pain is laid bare in the small moments he shares with his son, Joseph, as played by Spencer Treat Clark. Emotionally estranged from his family after the train catastrophe, David begins to reconnect with Joseph as they test the boundaries of his new found powers, post accident. Shyamalan gave them plenty of scenes together which are as profound and memorable as the bigger action beats in the film. Clark was also a veteran television and film actor at the time in projects like Arlington Road. He continues to act, returning as Joseph in Glass, and appearing most recently in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.

Abigail Breslin as Bo Hess in Signs (2002)


In Signs, Shyamalan showcased not one, but two exceptional child performances including the motion picture debut of little Abigail Breslin. She plays Bo Hess, the daughter of former Episcopal priest and widower, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). Crop circles appear in their corn field, which are revealed to be harbingers of an alien invasion. Breslin's performance is genuine, sweet and helps amp up the terror once the aliens surround their farm house. Breslin's career was launched based on her work in Signs, and she went to immediately co-star in the TV series, Fairfax, and has since accrued more lauded film roles in Little Miss Sunshine and Zombieland. 

Rory Culkin as Morgan Hess in Signs (2002)

Signs (2002)

Acting his little heart out next to Breslin was Rory Culkin, the youngest of the Culkin acting family. As Morgan Hess, the anxious, asthmatic son of Graham, Culkin gives a vulnerable performance as he desperately tries to make sense of the crop circles and rumors pervading their area about alien sightings. He hits the research books to try and assuage he and Bo's fears. And he plays an integral part in selling the tense final act when Morgan is kidnapped by an alien. Rory continues to act, having appeared in many films and recently co-starring in the FX miniseries, Under the Banner of Heaven.

Noah Ringer as Aang in The Last Airbender (2010)

Shyamalan's live-action adaptation of the beloved animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender didn't land well with fans or critics. But Noah Ringer, who embodied Aang, wasn't at fault as he gave one of the best performances of the film. A young martial artist from Dallas, Texas that the director discovered through an audition tape, Ringer landed the part because of his passion for the animated series and his fighting skills. It was first acting role. Despite the pressure, the young actor gave an earnest and authentically athletic performance as the Airbender. He went on to appear in Cowboys & Aliens.

Kristen Cui as Wen in Knock at the Cabin (2023)

Knock At The Cabin (2023) Poster

Another of Shyamalan's young acting discoveries, Kristen Cui, plays Wen, the adopted and only child of Eric and Andrew. The director discovered Cui from an audition where her charm and energy earned her the role. Cabin is her feature film debut, and she more than holds her own against Bautista and the rest of her adult cast members. She gives a natural performance, and helps land one of the best scenes of the whole film in the last minutes.

Seeking more horror films starring kids? Try Keith Allan's 11/11/11, now streaming on Peacock.