The Breakout Performances of 2019

With these rising talents on the horizon, the future looks very bright indeed.
Rewind Breakout Performances
By  · Published on December 9th, 2019

Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)

Ouatih Margaret Qualley

Between starring roles in no fewer than six feature films, one miniseries, and even a video game, Margaret Qualley is having a very busy year. But even in such a crowded field, it’s easy to pinpoint which of these performances is her most star-making. In Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Qualley plays Pussycat, a Manson girl who hitchhikes a ride to Spahn’s Movie Ranch with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth. Their meeting provides a neat segue for the converging of OUATIH’s two main storylines, but it’s also crucial to the picture the movie paints of the era.

Before we ever hear her speak a word, Qualley’s Pussycat is an effervescent presence, so bubbly and full of lively spirit that she verges on the manic. At first glance, all that vivacity and easy trust would seem to be explained by her hippie looks – but then Cliff asks if she’s underage, and Qualley’s fumbling response screams tragic vulnerability. In this moment her performance instantly illuminates a darker underside to the period, one that reaches beyond the narrative parameters of the film to help explain the entire Manson phenomenon itself. Qualley has just a handful of scenes across OUATIH’s 160-minute runtime, but her ability to articulate so much in such a short space of time makes her a crucial, haunting part of the film’s DNA.

What’s next: Seberg; My Salinger Year; The Chain 

Marchánt Davis (The Day Shall Come)

The Day Shall Come Marchant Davis

The Day Shall Come never quite reaches the level of biting satire of Chris Morris’ last film, Four Lions, but what it can boast is a casting coup in its unknown lead, Marchánt Davis. He plays Moses Al-Shabazz, a messianic leader of a small religious community in Miami’s projects who unwittingly becomes the target of a racist FBI entrapment plot designed to boost their conviction numbers. Moses is a pacifist, more interested in building fences out of guns than shooting with them, but he’s also mentally ill and penniless, and thus easy prey for an institution like the Bureau.

That the plot is inspired by “one hundred true stories” is enough to inspire anger alone, but Davis heightens the poignancy by giving that statistic a human face. His energy in the film is never anything but warm and sympathetic, making him a perfect counter to the FBI’s callous cynicism. Davis is particularly winning in scenes where Moses is shown to be a dedicated family man, and he possesses such an innate charm and authority that it’s easy to understand why Moses’ little congregation is equally devoted to him. Such an assured debut lead performance makes Davis a sensational find.

What’s next: Tuscaloosa

Julia Fox (Uncut Gems)

Julia Fox Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems is first and foremost a vehicle for Adam Sandler, but next to him in the passenger seat and keeping pace every step of the way is Julia Fox. Fox co-stars as Jules, the aptly named girlfriend of Sandler’s diamond-dealing Howard. In their own way, this explosive and oft-fighting odd couple are surprisingly endearing; even in volatile circumstances, they do sincerely care for one another. The credit for this dynamic working lies in large part with Fox’s show-stopping performance.

As Jules, she toes the line between youthful brashness and street-wise experience. She’s naive, but she has a good head on her shoulders, and when it comes down to it, she’s a hell of a lot of fun to root for. Jules could have been reduced to a stock character, a girlfriend-type we’ve all seen a hundred times before, but in Fox’s hands she’s beautifully realized and a highlight of one of the best films of the year. With Uncut Gems, Fox has announced her talents loud and clear and made it apparent that she deserves to go far. I can’t wait to see where she goes next. (Anna Swanson)

What’s next: PVT CHAT

Viveik Kalra (Blinded by the Light)

Blinded By The Light Viveik Kalra

In Blinded by the Light, Viveik Kalra plays Javed, a shy British-Pakistani Muslim teenager coming of age in a town blighted by white supremacists and crumbling industry. Against this bleak backdrop, Javed discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen, and his world is turned on its head. Suddenly, he’s found external validation for his dreams of a better life and is galvanized by Springsteen’s enduringly relatable lyrics about escaping from economic decline and humdrum hometowns.

The writing here is fairly broad — Blinded by the Light is a sweet, by-the-numbers coming-of-age movie — but Kalra does eloquent emotional work expressing what it feels like to find your inner world and all its nuances reflected in an unexpected place. In the movie’s musical sequences, his youthful euphoria is contagious; a glorious advertisement for the transcendental healing powers of The Boss. Just as director Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham launched the careers of stars Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley in 2002, the sweet charm and infectious joy of Kalra’s performance marks him as an exciting one-to-watch.

What’s next: Voyagers

Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart)

Booksmart Friends

Like Blockers and The Edge of Seventeen before it, Booksmart is another standout entry to the positive, girl-centric teen comedy hall of fame. Its success marks a breakthrough point for its first-time director, actor Olivia Wilde, but it’s also a watershed moment for one of its stars, Kaitlyn Dever. With a history of impressive supporting parts in movies like Beautiful Boy behind her – plus an established TV presence on Last Man Standing and Justified – it feels like Dever has been building up to a starring role of this caliber for a long time. She co-stars here with Beanie Feldstein (who had her own breakout in Lady Bird) as a pair of teenage overachievers who realize, on their last day of high school, that they’ve had the work-play equation wrong all along. Amy (Dever) and Molly’s (Feldstein) friendship feels true-to-life, largely because of Dever and Feldstein’s easy rapport and mutually reinforcing performance.

Amy is the perfect counterbalance to Molly: she’s awkward, introverted, and not very sure of herself, in contrast to Feldstein’s genially obnoxious character. There’s a lot with which to connect in Booksmart, but Amy’s relative vulnerability might make her the movie’s most relatable character, especially in a heartbreaking sequence that joins a growing canon of standout pool scenes in coming-of-age movies. In other places, Dever is also riotously funny, her comic timing and fizzing co-star chemistry providing Booksmart with some of its most painfully hilarious moments (see: the panda scene).

That all makes for a performance light-years away from the role she’s ending 2019 with – as a teenage girl faced with disbelief when she reports an incident of sexual assault in Netflix’s harrowing limited series Unbelievable – but together, these two performances prove testament to the depth of Dever’s talent and the diversity of its range.

What’s next: Platform (TV)

Honor Swinton Byrne (The Souvenir)

The Souvenir Honor Swinton Byrne

The Souvenir is not the easiest film with which to make your acting debut. Joanna Hogg’s intensely personal fourth feature is a blisteringly honest account of her own doomed relationship with an older man during her film school days, and it requires a lot from its leading actress. First, there’s the ability to navigate the not-insignificant pressure of playing the director’s proxy persona, but even beyond that, the role demands a performer with enough emotional intelligence and resourcefulness to improvise much of her dialogue (as Hogg’s actors generally do).

Also required is the delicate skill to communicate all of her character nuances: her professional insecurity, personal naivety, self-abasing generosity, and her frustrating blindness to what’s going on around her. First-time actor (and daughter of Tilda) Honor Swinton Byrne does all that, and more. The Souvenir never tries to show us what Julie sees in Tom Burke’s arrogant Anthony; instead, it puts faith in Swinton Byrne’s lead performance to keep us empathetically invested.

She doesn’t let the film down: Swinton Byrne’s raw, sympathetic presence encourages us to accept Julie as she is, and so our compassion for her overrides any frustration we may feel with her choices. Because of its vignette-like structure, The Souvenir requires its performances to be not so much arced by the drama of the story as driven by a sense of documentary naturalism. Such a demand might be within the expected grasp of a seasoned actor like Burke, perhaps, but would surely have posed an intimidating challenge for a newcomer like Swinton Byrne. Her revelatory performance here proves she’s more than up to the task, a verdict that should be cemented when she reprises her role in next year’s sequel.

What’s next: The Souvenir: Part II

Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves, Luce) and Taylor Russell (Waves)

Waves Kelvin Harrison Jr Taylor Russell

Waves overflows with outstanding performances, but it’s Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell who rise above in Trey Edward Shults’ tragedy-laced family drama. Russell plays Emily, the quiet younger sister to Harrison Jr.’s Tyler, a star athlete and the golden child of the Williams family. That’s a dichotomy that’s reflected in the film’s divided structure: when a shocking incident cleaves the narrative in two, Waves dramatically switches gears, the palpitation and frenetic acceleration of Harrison Jr.’s half giving way to a slower, more introspective part guided by Russell.

Were it not for that equal split, the more conspicuous brilliance of Harrison Jr.’s performance might have obscured the subtle intelligence of Russell’s, just as Tyler’s achievements overshadow his sister in the film. But Shults is a perceptive, generous filmmaker, and he’s aware that both young actors are more than capable of shouldering half of the narrative, just as he knows their characters’ starkly different stories are equally worthy of our time. We’re given as much opportunity to witness Emily’s moving attempts to navigate grief, forgiveness, and desire as we are Tyler’s surging emotions (frustration, disappointment, jealousy) and the ways he deals with them — or rather, doesn’t.

Tonally they’re very different films, but Harrison Jr.’s role here recalls his other breakout part of the year in Luce, which similarly explores a teen’s buried emotions and experience of parental pressure, and likewise highlights the natural ease with which Harrison Jr. channels the complex themes of any movie he appears in. Like Luce, much of the subtlety and effect of Waves is drawn from its performances, and here both actors are absolutely key. Russell demonstrates an astute ability to early-on telegraph character nuances that will come to the fore later, and Harrison Jr. consolidating the impression of great promise left by Luce earlier in the year. With multiple nominations to their names already (Harrison Jr. for Luce, and Russell for Waves), these two actors signal very bright futures ahead.

What’s next for Harrison Jr.: The Photograph; Covers; The Trial of the Chicago 7
What’s next for Russell: Lost in Space (TV); Escape Room 2; Words on Bathroom Walls; Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets

Noah Jupe (Honey Boy)

Noah Jupe In Honey Boy

While Honey Boy‘s focus may be on Shia LaBeouf’s performance as a fictionalized version of his own father, it’s obvious that the movie couldn’t be as heart-wrenching without a breakout performance from Noah Jupe. Jupe is young Otis (based on young LaBeouf himself), a 12-year old child actor with better comedic timing and professionalism than a lot of adult actors. Otis has had to grow up fast, even outside of his acting career, and we see the emotional and sometimes physical trauma that goes on when he’s not in front of a camera. Jupe does a marvelous job at playing both the innocent observer to James’ (LaBeouf) dangerous behavior along with the boy who fights against it the best he can. The verbal altercations between Jupe and LaBeouf are hard to watch, not because they are bad, but because they feel so real. Matching LaBeouf ‘s intensity is not an easy task, but Jupe does it with ease.

Director Alma Har’el had Jupe audition with one of the most difficult scenes in the film, the moment when Otis moderates a fight between his mother and father. If Jupe could survive that scene sparring with the real person he’s supposed to be portraying, he can hold his own in the rest of the film. He does more than that; Jupe shines in a way child actors rarely do, with a sense of awareness of the emotional impact of the story and simplicity that rings true to his young character. Honey Boy isn’t Jupe’s first movie (A Quiet Place, Suburbicon, Wonder), but it’s certainly his shining moment and hopefully the beginning of a fantastic career — see him also in this year’s Ford v Ferrari! (Emily Kubincanek)

What’s next: The Undoing (TV); A Quiet Place: Part II

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Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here and reviewing Columbo episodes here.