How many great movies are there featuring children? Fewer than you’d think. I wonder, sometimes, if it’s because there’s a dearth of great child actors. After all, when I think of children in movies, the mind conjures up Disney Channel garbage, or Macaulay Culkin screaming his fool head off in the Home Alone movies.
Then again, you also have to want to write a script with a child at the center of the story, which also veers into the saccharine. As I was pondering this list, it also occurred to me that the best children’s movies are ones in which the children in the movie suffer, and usually suffer in profound and disturbing ways. These are children forced, at such a young age, into adult situations that make the adults in the audience pause. Even the “fun” movies that didn’t make the list–Paper Moon, That Bad News Bears, The Black Stallion–have kids put through the wringer of being orphaned, the product of divorce, shipwreck, you name it.
To wit: there won’t be any Miley Cyrus here.
Maybe, too, Hollywood doesn’t want to make too many features with children since child actors usually grow into wrecked adults. Not that Hollywood has ever given a rip about the lives of the people who work in movies.
5. Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense. Haley Joel Osment received an Oscar nomination for his work as the beleaguered Cole Sear, a child who has the great misfortune of being able to see the frustrated dead. And that’s what makes The Sixth Sense such an amazing film, especially on repeated viewings. The secret of the film is such that as soon as you know it, as soon as you’ve seen it once, it ceases to become a horror film. What it is instead is a melancholy portrait of grief, made powerful both by Bruce Willis’ distraught psychiatrist and Osment’s frustrated, sad child, who suddenly has the dead trying desperately to get him to help ease their pain in the afterlife.
In this clip you can witness the magnificence of Osment, in a performance of subtlety and vulnerability, and what is most heartbreaking here is that despite his running away, you notice that he is very much used to the presence of horror.
4. Owen Kline, The Squid and the Whale. The Squid and the Whale is one of the most brutally honest movies ever made about the wreck of a family. And it’s one of the most shockingly honest movies about childhood–real childhood, the one with bizarre behaviors, growing pains, puberty–ever made. My brother and I winced when we saw it, as it seemed to hit very close to home, though I’m guessing anyone who comes from a divorced family sees a lot in this sad film.
It was Owen Kline’s performance as the angry, confused younger brother that prompted a friend of mine to complain that he thought it almost abusive to allow the kid to do the things he does in this movie. Kline was 14 at the time, but he looks younger (he’s supposed to be 12.) He’s the son of actor Kevin Kline, so he’s been in the business, but he’s made only one movie since then, and it was a short.
You do wonder what the family thought about his role. Kline’s performance is so edgy it haunts me to this day, and kudos to him and director/writer Noah Baumbach for the courage to write such a character. (Actually, for all the characters in The Squid and the Whale.)
I warn you in advance that this scene is of a sexual nature and is disturbing.
3. Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver. Well, Jodie Foster. The role that made whats-is-name go crazy and shoot our actor president. It’s so natural and so damned creepy–I mean, she’s a prostitue, for God’s sake, and while I know there’s 14 year-old prostitutes, having my kid play one, well, that’s another story. And yet, without Foster, Taxi Driver would lose its center, wouldn’t it?
One thing about Foster here: she looks much older than her 14 years. I’m guessing she’d already been through a ton by then.
2. Billy Chapin, Night of the Hunter. Ah, you know I could go on and on and on about Night of the Hunter, such is my love for this movie. But I’ll make it brief. Everyone talks about Robert Mitchum, as they should, but without Billy Chapin’s John Harper as the pursued, this movie simply won’t work. Chapin is amazing here, vulnerable, tough, a little soldier you want to cradle in your arms and then shrug as he squirms free to go and do his own thing. John Harper is our entry into the story. He is the child in us that is threatened by the avarice of adulthood.
Like many child actors, Chapin got lost as he aged, and supposedly fell into drinking and drugs. Who knows where he is now? I wonder if he thinks back on Night of the Hunter. Does he carry a little bit of John Harper with him today? Is he still being chased by the Preacher?
1. Jean-Pierre Léaud, The 400 Blows. If I hadn’t seen The 400 Blows for a French New Wave class I’m taking right now, this might have been lower on the list. I honestly don’t know how anyone can say this isn’t the most amazing, most natural performance by a child in cinema history. Look at Jean-Pierre! As Antoine Doinel, the only child of a spoiled mother and stepchild to a race car driving man, the kid is so graceful, so beautiful to watch, by turns hilarious one minute and so dour the next, he reminds me of Brando, of De Niro, of the best actors in their finest roles.
Balancing perfectly the playfulness of childhood, the wicked joy of being a little thief, and the penetrating frustrations that accompany every kid (and especially one in his crappy situation), he totally owns this movie. I watch him spinning in the amusement park ride, stealing money from a secret place in the cramped apartment, setting the table, running away, laughing, looking pissed, and I see childhood in its essence. Léaud is breathtaking.
Intriguingly, Léaud went on to do a ton of movies with both Truffaut and Godard, and in a sense became Truffaut in many of that director’s autobiographical movies. What an auspicious debut. If you get the Criterion DVD (and don’t stream it, because you won’t find these options), you can see Léaud’s screen tests, which are totally charming.
At the 1:50 point of the trailer you’ll see a brief glimpse of Léaud’s famous scene, when Antoine meets a psychiatrist and opens up. It’s an actor’s exercise that shouldn’t fit, but does, and reveals a very special talent.
(All the children are uniformly brilliant in The 400 Blows. If you haven’t seen it, you should, and quickly.)