10 Child Performers Who Aren’t Horrifyingly Obnoxious

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This week, the underrated and rather lovely 1991 drama Little Man Tate makes its Blu-ray debut; it’s a film best known as Jodie Foster’s first in the director’s chair, but it also features a terrific Adam Hann-Byrd in the title role. His is one of those performances that come along every once in a while to remind you that, contrary to how it might seem, not all child actors are bratty, shrieking nightmares, cloyingly cute moppets, and/or smartass one-liner machines. Here are a few more of that rare ilk.

Adam Hann-Byrd in Little Man Tate

Foster not only directed but co-starred (in the same year as Silence of the Lambs, even), playing a working-class mom to a boy genius. Hann-Byrd acts the role as neither cute and cuddly nor alienating; he’s just a nice kid who’s super-smart, and thus doesn’t really relate to kids his age. Dianne Wiest is the facilitator of a school for exceptional kids who seems to offer a way out, but Scott Frank’s evenhanded script doesn’t see anyone as all good or all bad; there’s a snobbery to her approach, and the film is endlessly savvy about the way class can creep into conversations and considerations of education and intellect. Foster also seems to bring much of her own knowledge of what it is to be an exceptional kid, and is sympathetic to it; when he tells his mom he doesn’t want a birthday party, your heart just breaks (even more so when she cuts to what happens next).

Jodie Foster in Tom Sawyer

It seems safe to assume that Foster knew a thing or two about directing child actors from her own years as one; she’d done nearly 20 (credited) television and film appearances before she was ten. Not long after that birthday, she co-starred (with Family Affair’s Johnny Whitaker) in this charming 1973 musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic. Foster is terrific as Becky Thatcher, crafting a finely tuned portrait of the kind of scrappy girl who could turn Tom’s thick head.

Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird

Of course, the ultimate period-movie tomboy performance is found in Robert Mulligan’s classic 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s iconic novel, told through the eyes of Badham’s Scout. In the hands of the wrong actor, she could be a grating, even irritating character, but Badham seizes on Scout’s most essential quality: her inherent curiosity, about her neighbors, her father, and the often unjust world around her.

Max Pomeranc in Searching for Bobby Fischer

The same year that Steven Spielberg directed his screenplay of Schindler’s List, Steven Zaillan made his feature directorial debut with one of the best movies of the decade, a beautifully crafted and sweetly moving story of a gifted kid and the pitfalls of that gift. Pomeranc — a quietly heartbreaking performer — plays Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy who finds the world of competitive play challenging to his essential goodness. He’s just a sweet kid who doesn’t want to turn into the kind of monsters he keeps playing against, and Pomeranc is such a natural (and so naturally likable), he makes the story’s modest dilemma into the stuff of high drama.

Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire

Tony Scott’s 2004 thriller remains a fascinatingly atypical genre movie: it’s a brutal, bloody action flick whose entire first act is a contemplative character drama. The bulk of the film concerns a former assassin (Denzel Washington, truly terrific) tracking down the kidnapped girl (Fanning) he’s been assigned to protect, torturing and killing anyone who gets in his way, and most movies would establish her character and their relationship in a scene or two, or maybe just a montage. Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) instead invest nearly a full hour in dramatizing the relationship, to devastating effect — it raises the stakes of the bloodbath that follows, and gives us a real rooting interest. And this brings us to Fanning, who crafts a nuanced and thoughtful character who’s much more than just a “cute kid”; she’s an intelligent and motivated girl in need of a father figure, and willing to patiently draw out the tender side of her tough protector.

Kirsten Dunst in Interview With a Vampire

It became very clear that 12-year-old Dunst — who’d previously done just a handful of minor television and film roles — was something special in the fall of 1994, when the young actress delivered a knockout one-two punch at American cinemas. Her turn as young Amy in Little Women was lovely and memorable, but she brought the real juice in Neil Jordan’s much-ballyhooed adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview. Her work as Claudia, a bitter vampire who ages 30 years while frozen in her prepubescent body, is haunted, harrowing, and remarkable; it landed her a Golden Globe nomination and a career that’s not drying up anytime soon.

Quinn Cummings in The Goodbye Girl

The role of daughter Lucy McFadden could’ve very well gone very wrong; after all, The Goodbye Girl is a Neil Simon movie, which means Lucy is exactly the kind of quip-happy, wise-beyond-her-years kid role that’s been the bane of TV sitcoms, oh, pretty much forever. But Cummings is simply perfect in the role, conveying an intelligence and wry wit that overpowers the set-up/punchline nature of Simon’s dialogue, and the performance was so well-received that she got both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for the effort.

Christina Ricci in Addams Family Values

If Cummings has a more recent counterpart, it’s probably Ricci, whose dry line readings and bristling intelligence livened up films from Mermaids to Casper to her “grown-up” breakthrough in the wonderfully nasty Opposite of Sex. But the crowning achievement of her early years is still Sonnefeld’s Addams Family sequel — a rare follow-up that easily tops the original, mostly by spending so much of its running time on Ricci’s Wednesday Addams and her uproariously funny trip to the sunniest summer camp on earth.

Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional

The role of Matilda in Luc Besson’s Leon has got the kind of complications and dimensions that’d make even an adult actor nervous: the survivor of a brutal bloodbath that kills her entire family, she begs the assassin next door to train her for revenge, all the while developing some not-quite-appropriate feelings for her new mentor. Yet Portman was all of 12 years old when she played the role with fire, sensitivity, and intelligence — and, even more incredibly, it was her feature film debut.

Elijah Wood in The Good Son

For many, the go-to image of the obnoxious child performance is Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone — most likely in the hands-on-cheeks poster pose. This 1993 thriller from director Joseph Ruben (The Stepfather) was supposed to change all that, broadly rebranding “Mac” as a serious young actor by casting him against type in an evil villain role. The trouble was, everybody came away from the movie talking about co-star Wood, whose performance as the protagonist/audience surrogate is natural, believable, and wise, setting him up for the kind of varied and long-lasting career that ended up eluding his famous co-star.