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The 20 Greatest Child Performances

Home Alone (1990)

Actor: Macaulay Culkin

Age: 10

Why So Memorable? Sure, he was possibly the most staggeringly precocious little mittens-wearer in history when he bagged around 90% of the screen time in Chris Columbus’s perennial Christmas favourite, but holy crap the kid had some charisma.

Also, he spends most of the film beating seven bells out of two adults, and evidently enjoying it precisely as much as any of us would’ve done at that age. Fair play, son - just please, please stay off the aftershave...

Billy Elliot (2000)

Actor: Jamie Bell

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.

Empire Of The Sun (1987)

Actor: Christian Bale

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.

The Red Balloon (1956)

Actor: Pascal Lamorisse

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.

Oliver! (1968)

Actor: Jack Wild

Age: 16

Why So Memorable? As the Artful Dodger, Wild provides the tousled, ragged heart of the film. Not only does he outshine most of the adults he shares screen time with, but his portrayal of cinema’s most effortlessly loveable rogue offers a much-needed counterpoint to Mark Lester’s radiant yet sappy title character.

The sort of kid you actually wanted as a mate, despite knowing that he would’ve prised out your fillings at the first sleepover.

The Addams Family (1991)

Actor: Christina Ricci

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.

The Black Stallion (1979)

Actor: Kelly Reno

Age: 13

Why So Memorable? Partly for the sheer amount of time he spends - and commands - as the only human on screen in the wake of the shipwreck.

The real achievement, though, is the way he coaxes his relationship with the spooked horse from frustrating cat-and-mouse struggles to firm friendship without sprinkling on mountains of excess cheese in the process.

The 400 Blows (1959)

Actor: Jean-Pierre Léaud

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.

The Others (2001)

Actors: Alakina Mann, James Bentley

Ages: 8-11

Why So Memorable? They were spooky as hell (well, at least early doors) without falling back on lazy stereotypes, neither of which are mean feats for such young actors.

Clearly the majority of the cliché-swerving must be credited in large part to director Alejandro Amenábar, but both his starring kids exude a quiet confidence despite their characters’ affliction - and it’s this curious, otherworldly boldness that really helps put the hairs up on the back of your neck.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Actor: Haley Joel Osment

Age: 11

Why So Memorable? Wee Haley had some pretty hefty lines to deliver, and deliver he most certainly did. Child actors aren’t often trusted with many of the pivotal, show-stopping moments when they’re in a supporting role - especially under leading men as planetary as Bruce Willis - but Osment doesn’t look phased even once.

Well, y’know, except where he’s supposed to. And when you’ve got the natural talent for ghost-spotting that he’s got, that’s reasonably often.