Dreaming of the return of the Oscars’ youth performance award.
Between 1935 and 1961, the Academy gave out an occasional honorary award for outstanding juvenile performances. Twelve young actors and actresses received the special miniature Oscar, with two years doubling up where there was a winner of each gender.
During and since, minors have competed in major acting categories, and some have won. Usually, that’s a bad idea. Frankly, most child actors are either terrible or not yet developed enough in their craft to be worthy of any awards recognition, and many are later proven talentless in adulthood.
This year has been a very good one for youth performers, however. And this is even before the latest movie starring last year’s little darling, Jacob Tremblay, has hit theaters (and we’re not counting TV – sorry Stranger Things kids). Actors and actresses aged zero to 17 have ruled in 2016.
So, without there still being the special Academy Award (and with the Opie Awards not being a real thing), let’s just discuss the best juvenile performances of the year amongst ourselves. Firstly, here is a shortlist of runners up considered for higher recognition:
Kylie Rogers in Miracles From Heaven: she’s no Connor Corum (Heaven is for Real), but Rogers still proves Christian films can be worth seeing for their youth actors alone. She elevates the typical sick kid role and earns our sympathy throughout an otherwise forgettable movie.
Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special: he’s mostly playing a living MacGuffin, so his performance has to be simple and subdued. He is overshadowed by costars like Michael Shannon and Adam Driver, but he’s still perfect as the quiet yet extraordinary boy at the center of the film.
Madina Nalwanga in Queen of Katwe: the adult supporting players get top billing in Mira Nair’s film about real Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, but Nalwanga is the one to watch in that role. She also gives a relatively soft performance but has a much brighter, more appealing presence.
Eva Peterson in The Boss: while Ella Anderson is fine as the typical Hollywood child actor in this movie (and Mother’s Day), Peterson is the sort that can steal the show from Melissa McCarthy. Mostly used for height gags, she’s also funny on her own as the tough girl. She resembles a young Julia Stiles yet is more likely to play Jason Bourne than Nicky Parsons one day.
Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book: you have to give him a lot of credit for being the only real thing, let alone actor, in Disney’s latest take on the Kipling stories. He worked opposite green screen and stand-in props and director Jon Favreau and wound up convincing as Mowgli among CG beasts.
Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence in Pete’s Dragon: Fegley is a very different sort of wild child and he plays him with genuine wonder. Laurence is a more precocious child but surprisingly never obnoxiously so. Together they make an old icon like Robert Redford seem all but invisible.
Ruby Barnhill in The BFG: rounding out the young actors who had to perform alongside CG creatures in Disney movies, she comes off the most unique in a natural, almost unprofessional yet still talented way. She probably won’t last in this industry, so let’s be extra thankful for her in this.
And now here are the girl and boy who would win the Outstanding Juvenile Performance trophies if we had them to give:
Angourie Rice in The Nice Guys
There are so many things to love about Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, and one of them is the breakout performance by Rice. She’s perfectly cast for the part of Ryan Gosling’s prepubescent but very mature-minded daughter, evoking similar characters of the time period the movie is set in played by the likes of Jodie Foster and Tatum O’Neal. She has that innocence combined with strength and independence we have very rarely seen in a child actress since then, and she’s especially good for being Australian and authentically passing as an American kid. Out of all the youth performers of the year, she’s the one most likely to become a star after this. She better.
Julian Dennison in Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Audiences have been falling in love with Taika Waititi’s coming-of-age movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople since its debut at Sundance in January. Mostly because of Dennison’s performance as Ricky Baker, a problem child who winds up on the run in the New Zealand bush with his foster father (Sam Neill). He already won his country’s equivalent of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the role. He’s not really the greatest actor, but he’s got a great look and can be very funny, in a variety of ways, as the movie works with all kinds of comedy. Besides his versatility, he’s also just an incredible delight. I don’t love the movie, but I couldn’t turn it off thanks to him.