From 1935 to 1961, the Oscars included a special award for best juvenile performance. The honor wasn’t mandatory every year, and sometimes there were two child actors recognized at the same ceremony. Today, similar awards are bestowed by other organizations, including the Broadcast Film Critics Association (of which I am a member), though their eligibility extends to the age of 21 rather than the Academy’s under-18 qualification.
I consider performances by minors to be in a class of their own, especially as many child actors don’t wind up great adult actors. I also have an appreciation for natural youth performances as opposed to precocious Hollywood kid types. Below are the 18 best performances of this year from girls and boys under the age of 18. Recognized first are my top two choices followed by the rest in alphabetical order.
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
Despite the lack of a lot of juvenile performance honors these days, Elsie Fisher is still receiving a lot of awards recognition. She recently won the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor and tied with Lady Gaga for the same honor bestowed by the Atlanta Film Critics Circle (of which I’m a member). And she’s nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe for Best Lead Actress. She deserves it all, as the girl previously best known as the original voice of little Agnes in the Despicable Me movies is incredible in Eighth Grade. She’s tasked with a kind of dual performance, portraying her character, Kayla, in various fronts of adolescence from her more confident YouTube video diaries to her awkward shyness around her peers to her comfortably cruel attitude towards her father. Here’s hoping this is only the beginning for one of the most promising young talents in the business.
Zain Al Rafeea in Capernaum
How much of Zain, the protagonist of Lebanon’s Oscar entry Capernaum, is just Zain Al Rafeea the non-professional actor? They share a name and a face, but otherwise, let’s hope the boy’s real life is nothing like the heartwarming and heartbreaking story of an abused son who winds up in prison and then legally declares his wish to never have been born. As with most runaway street kid roles, Zain required Al Rafeea — an uneducated Syrian refugee discovered in Beirut for the movie and since relocated to Norway where he’s learning to read — to play a mix of innocence and a kind of forced maturity as he seeks independence from his parents, vengeance for personal tragedy, and the comforts of a newfound family. Surely, filmmaker Nadine Labaki deserves a lot of credit for her achievements in directing children (see the next entry, too), but Al Rafeea is still phenomenal.
Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in Capernaum
The youngest name on this list, Bankole was just a toddler during the filming of Capernaum. She’s also a girl playing a boy. Normally I wouldn’t recognize a child who is essentially a baby since how much is she really cognizant of the performance, but as many have already stated in reviews, this movie might feature the best baby acting of all time.
Vivien Lyra Blair in Bird Box
There are two small children in Bird Box for a brief amount of time, one of them named boy and the other named girl. They don’t have a lot to do other than look cute and occasionally scared, but as Girl, Blair has one standout moment where she has to utter a line with such sadness-infused confidence that she almost stole the whole movie away from Sandra Bullock, who is absolutely terrific.
Raffey Cassidy in Vox Lux
Natalie Portman is getting all the attention for Vox Lux, but she’s really not in the movie much. Meanwhile, Cassidy appears throughout and as two different characters. In the first half, she plays the younger version of Portman’s character, and then in the second half, she plays that character’s daughter. The dual casting is a bold choice, but Cassidy pulls it off so well that you’ll be double checking IMDb to be sure it’s the same person.
Anna Cathcart in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Proving my theory that the Canadian children’s series Odd Squad is a starting ground for the great Hollywood child actors (see the progressions of Millie Davis and Peyton Kennedy), Cathcart is on the rise. She’s not a major character in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but her feisty preteen presence is felt throughout as the protagonist’s little sister and the movie’s plot catalyst.
Julian Dennison in Deadpool 2
One of the two standouts on this list two years ago, Dennison has now made the leap to Hollywood blockbusters as a super-powered mutant in the Deadpool sequel. And he lost none of his charm in the role. In fact, he hardly shows much range from Hunt of the Wilderpeople to this, almost playing Ricky Baker again, just with pyrokinesis. That doesn’t mean he’s not still great at what he does.
Anthony Gonzalez in Icebox
You loved his voice as heard in the Pixar animated feature Coco, now see him a bit older and a lot more present as the on-screen lead of HBO’s Spanish-language film Icebox, reprising his role from Daniel Sawka’s original 2016 short of the same name. It’s close to a one-man show as he carries the timely immigration drama on his shoulders. While not awards worthy, the performance shows strong promise for Gonzalez’s career as he continues to move forward as someone to watch in the live-action arena.
Noah Jupe in A Quiet Place
After holding his own against already legendary child actor Jacob Tremblay (whom I’m not honoring this year for The Predator) in Wonder and standing out in the otherwise problematic Suburbicon last year, Jupe — who I would have never known is English — continued a streak as one of only a quartet of characters in A Quiet Place. While overshadowed somewhat by his fellow youth performer (see Millicent Simmonds below), he proved to have a talent for relatively silent acting (not that his American accent isn’t perfect). See him also this year co-starring in Holmes & Watson.
Jyo Kairi in Shoplifters
There are so many reasons why Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or this year and why it’s a leading contender for the foreign-language film Oscar and why it’s just, frankly, a brilliant movie. Among them are the performances from the two children (see the other further down below) who double-team clobber your emotions. As Shota, Jyo Kairi is a rock holding the story of the film and the ensemble that is the functioning dysfunctional family patchwork together. It’s a lot to bear, yet it seems effortless from him. Maybe it is, and Kore-eda is doing the heavy lifting, but either way it’s perfect.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace
The other young actress earning major awards attention this year — she was the National Board Review’s choice for Breakthrough Performance, was up against Fisher for the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor, and she should be competing with Fisher in the Best Actress category of the Independent Spirit Awards. She’s instead a Spirit nominee for Best Supporting Actress despite being the true main character of Leave No Trace. Or at least co-lead. She matches the great Ben Foster at every step even while seeming to play simple and subtle. McKenzie has now turned 18, so she just made the cut with this one.
Jibrail Nantambu in Halloween
There are not a lot of laughs coming from most of the kids on this list, so Nantambu definitely stands out for being the comic relief of the new Halloween sequel. He’s a little larger than life but not in a precocious way and not just because he’s another little guy with a big mouth, cutting through the terror as a swearer. There’s not enough of him, frankly, as he sort of has his moment then disappears. Hopefully, he’ll be back for the sequel.
Isabelle Nélisse in The Tale
Nélisse’s appearance, her innocent babyface look, is terrifically uncomfortably emphasized in the surprise re-cast of the flashback scenes where she plays the film’s own director as a trusting victim of statutory rape. It’s a brave performance even with the stand-ins and the careful direction and editing. She’s re-enacting a traumatic experience and doing so in a way where she must play the immature naivete but also a meta-level knowingness in the film role throughout and then ultimately a realization of the misconduct. You want to applaud but also offer a hug.
Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time
Storm Reid should be a big name already. Sadly, her breakthrough role this year in Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time wasn’t as celebrated as it should have been. The movie wasn’t as successful as hoped, and while it had some decent legs at the end of the day, there still wasn’t a lot of excitement. Reid is nevertheless the sort of beyond her years talent — but also not precocious either (Deric McCabe, who plays her little brother, however…) — who will be a huge star soon enough, and whether that’s before or after A Wrinkle in Time becomes a cult hit with young viewers watching it on Netflix (or Disney+ in the future) I can be certain her dynamic and commanding performance will not go unnoticed over time.
Miyu Sasaki in Shoplifters
Do kids as young as Miyu Sasaki even know what they’re doing when they’re performing in a movie? Are they more easily directed? The truth is, we see a lot of children around age six deliver good wide-eyed adorable work in movies, but that doesn’t stop them from deserving attention. Not every little girl would be a fit to play the shoplifted child of Shoplifters. Maybe Hirokazu Kore-eda is just wonderful with juvenile actors, but he also has a good eye for having cast this perfect Yuri/Lin.
Isabella Sermon in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Unlike the kids in the other Jurassic Park/World movies, Sermon’s Fallen Kingdom character is much younger and relatively inessential to the plot, until the very end. That doesn’t stop her from being a compelling performer, and not just because you’re wondering what her deal is the whole time — or in my case waiting for the obvious reveal to happen. As for the less-obvious would-be reveal, I’m still convinced she’s got some dino DNA in her, and Sermon does as great a job playing enigmatic as she does playing terrified of CG dinosaurs, that there’s no reason to doubt the idea.
Milly Shapiro in Hereditary
Not to give anything away, but Shapiro doesn’t appear in as much of Hereditary as some of the other cast members do, and yet you leave the movie thinking of her presence as much as you do Toni Collette and Alex Wolff’s. Maybe she’s not deserving of an Oscar they way both of them are, but her haunting performance is a hugely memorable component of the movie, even if you’re not paying attention to all the marketing focused on her. She immediately went down as one of the all-time great horror kids.
Millicent Simmonds in A Quiet Place
Casting a deaf actress to play the deaf daughter in A Quiet Place was logical and respectful. Casting Simmonds specifically was brilliant, because she’s a brilliant young performer, one whose back to back work in Wonderstruck and then this is quite an impressive debut. She received more accolades for the former last year then she’s garnering for A Quiet Place this year, and that’s a shame, if only because she needs continued recognition in the help that she’ll continue to receive great roles in great movies. Hopefully, her talent will ensure that happens anyway.