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The 20 Greatest Performances By A Child Actor

05 January 2014 | Features, People Lists | by David Zou

great child performances

Many directors have spoken openly about the difficulties of working with child actors. Every once in awhile, however, a child actor brings forth a tour de force nobody saw coming and puts those directors to shame. Today, we’ve compiled our twenty favorite performances of all time by a child actor.

There are plenty of fantastic performances to choose from, but few have the power to truly take over a movie. On the other hand, how many times have you cringed at every word spoken by an unseasoned child actor?


20. Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot (2000)


Age: 14

Why So Memorable? Of course, the fact that he was a British young ‘un putting in an internationally lauded turn didn’t hurt – the general concept of a ‘child star’ seems so inherently tied to America, it’s easy to forget that we’ve been no slouches when it came to thrusting our vulnerable offspring into the limelight.

What really impressed about Bell’s performance, though, was its ballsiness: few of us would’ve dared admit an interest in dancing of any sort in the playground at that age, never mind on a global stage.


19. Christian Bale in Empire Of The Sun (1987)

Christian Bale in Empire Of The Sun

Age: 12

Why So Memorable? One of Bale’s most overlooked achievements as an actor, his portrayal of a childhood JG Ballard was astonishing in its depth and boldness without ever coming across like a snotty prodigy showing off.

Many kids seem overly self-aware on screen, as if mentally running through all the tedious things their lamer friends are doing right now. Bale just gets on with it, and a bloody good job he does too.


18. Pascal Lamorisse in The Red Balloon (1956)


Age: 6

Why So Memorable? Lamorisse – son of director Albert – puts in an utterly beguiling turn in this curious, near-silent 34-minute meditation on the power of youthful imagination balanced against the fragile naivety of childhood.

He doesn’t say very much as he chases his sentient airbag around a washed-out Paris cityscape, but he really doesn’t have to: we get it, and him, immediately.


17. Christina Ricci in The Addams Family (1991)

Christina Ricci in The Addams Family

Age: 11

Why So Memorable? Detached, disturbed, and showing an utter mastery of deadpan delivery that many actors twice her age struggle to achieve, her Wednesday Addams was so perfectly cast it really iced the cake.

Almost more impressive is the fact that, despite looking like she was born to play Wednesday, Ricci’s talents prevented her from being rigidly typecast in the Addams’ wake.


16. Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows (1959)

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows

Age: 14

Why So Memorable? François Truffaut’s classic distillation of the French New Wave was an emotionally fraught, semi-autobiographical mood piece that dealt in some tricky discourses on the nature/nurture origins of young troublemakers and the adults that pigeonhole them.

Léaud was so good, Truffaut cast him a further four times in the same (gradually older) role as he grew.

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  • nv

    this is all wrong…
    where is #1 ? Kirsten Dunst as Claudia, in “Interview Vampire” (1994)
    age 12

  • Ryan Ha

    Nice list. Typo with #12 Dakota Fanning. Age has her as 17 (instead of 7)

  • jzimba

    Quvenzhané Wallis?

  • zerofan13

    Sue Lyon as Lolita. Love the list, but she should be at least somewhere in the top 10.

  • Jay Runham

    Pierce Gagnon as Cid in Looper? No? That kid was amazing.

  • Cherubim

    The most wonderful child actress ever is Judy Garland as Dorothy in
    the Wizard of Oz.

    • MD707

      Except she wasn’t a child at the time. They had to bind her breasts to look younger. But, she will always be a one of a kind.

    • Víctor H. Luyo Saucedo

      But she was 16 and not a child.

  • Mike

    Wow loved Empire of the Rising Sun, and had no idea Christian Bale was the kid who was in it. So what happened between that movie and Batman? Did he just disappear as a child actor? Or did he do a lot of crap no one remembers?

    • Jesse Pepin

      There were a few, most notable transition film I saw him in was Newsies as a teen or something. Pretty crazy

    • Terry Shannon

      American Psycho, Reign of Fire, Equilibrium, The Machinist, etc, etc. He has a pretty large filmography between Empire of the Sun and Batman Begins.

  • Bruno Daniel Uribe

    Excuse me but I sincerely think this is a bad list. To much american. Mathieu Carrière (Der junge Törless) 16, Alfonso Mejía (Los olvidados- Buñuel) 16, Gaspard Manesse (Au revoir, les enfants) 12, Alexandre Rodrigues (Cidade de Deus) 19, Edmund Meschke (Germania, anno zero- Rosselini) 12?, David Bennent (The tin drum) 13, Nadine Nortier (Mouchette-Bresson) 19, Ana Torrent (El espiritu de la colmena) 7, David Bradley (Kes) 16, and more recently Mira Grosin, Liv Lemoyne and Mira Barkhammar (We are the best!-Lukas Moodyson)12-13.

  • Guest

    And Kirsten Dunst as Claudia in Interview with the vampire?

  • Víctor H. Luyo Saucedo

    And Kirsten Dunst as Claudia in Interview with the Vampire, Gaspard Manesse as Quentin in Au Revoir Les Enfants, Ivana Baquero as Ofelia in El Laberinto del Fauno? No like this list

  • MD707

    Freddy Highmore in Finding Neverland was so exceptional, Johnny Depp himself insisted that he play Charlie in the remake of Willy Wonka. Good list but it’s missing a lot of exceptional performances. Jackie Cooper and Mickey Rooney from the early days of cinema.

  • bdc777

    How about Justin Henry for Kramer vs. Kramer?

  • Melissa Jane Moore

    Great list, but Leo should be number one for Gilbert Grape. I think David Dorfman should be here too; his performance as Aidan in The Ring was amazing.

  • jerauf

    What about Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz? Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis? Shirley Temple in a lot of stuff? These all skew toward modern films but there are like 100 years of cinema and great performances by children to look through.

  • George Kozera

    Did no one here ever see THE MIRACLE WORKER? Patty Duke won an Oscar for that one. Brilliant performance. Sophie Nelisse in THE BOOK THIEF is the only reason to see that one (she’s also amazing in MONSIEUR LAZHAR).

  • Jose Correa Vigier

    What a limited knowledge of cinema. You sinfully forgot Ana Torrent in Carlos Sauras’s, Cria Cuervos (1976) Unless this is an exclusive list for English speaking actors. Otherwise it’s pure trend.

  • Sydney Nisbet

    Leo = the best.

  • Chris Card

    Where’s Maculay Culkin in “Home Alone”?

  • Theresa

    Brigitte Fossey from René Clément’s Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games) should have been in the Top 5, but wasn’t included at all! She was extraordinary.

  • Roger Christenson

    They have missed several of the best:
    Peggy Ann Garner, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
    David Ladd, The Proud Rebel
    Brad Renfro, The Client,
    Margaret O’Brien, Meet Me In St. Louis

  • Drew Sidener

    In addition to the many worthy choices here, I thought Elle Fanning was pretty great in Super 8.

  • Dan

    I’ve seen this list before but I don’t see the original source credited. Mark Powell wrote it for UK film magazine Total Film which reveals its penchant for English-speaking roles. This is a slightly altered but ultimately copied version. The original can be found here: