Performances from petite actors who hold their own against bigger, brawnier professionals have received a lot of recognition in recent years. Recall the awards-season adoration of nine-year-old Vancouver native Jacob Tremblay, from Room, and 15-year-old Beasts of No Nation star Abraham Attah. Both picked up numerous trophies for their searing portrayals.
But these young stars are not outliers. There is a big class of scene-stealing young thespians who have shown much promise in challenging roles, and could graduate to become the next Jodie Foster, Jason Bateman or Natalie Portman. Here is an extensive list of actors under 20, and under-your-radar, who are indeed worth watching.
(Excluded from this selection are past Oscar nominees and young stars that have already secured major roles in summer tentpoles, such as Tom Holland, Elle Fanning and Tye Sheridan.)
Anyone who read John Green’s Paper Towns was left in good hands with the big-screen adaptation last summer. One of the film’s high points: Florida actor Austin Abrams, whose potent comic timing as love-struck high school senior Ben injected some exuberance into the drama. It helps that Abrams was as young as the character he portrayed. The actor’s go-for-broke energy captured the feeling of restless excitement any soon-to-be-graduate feels. Abrams is attached to various projects, including an adaptation of Vernon God Little for director Werner Herzog.
Short Term 12, one of the best indie dramas of the decade, was a stepping-stone for two of last year’s biggest stars, Brie Larson and Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek. It will surprise few of that film’s fans when Kaitlyn Dever, who portrayed the wounded and wry Jayden, breaks out in a major way. As a young woman masking her pain from parental abuse with wiry words, Dever offers a mesmerizing performance. That depth likely helped her land a role in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children. Dever has worked with a who’s who of indie film titans, such as James Ponsoldt and Lynn Shelton. She’s due for long-term success.
Those who saw Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar were either moved or perplexed by the film’s audacious final act, which tried to connect heady orbital mechanics with family dramatics. Even if you didn’t buy into the climax, you were likely still on board with resolving the film’s father-daughter dynamic. As the young Murphy, both revered and neglected by her astronaut father (Matthew McConaughey), Mackenzie Foy gives Nolan’s drama poignancy and weight. Meanwhile, the young actor gave her voice to The Little Prince and her scream to The Conjuring. But it’s her turn in Nolan’s film that should, deservedly, boost her notoriety.
One of the most lovable kids from any stage play is Gavroche, the fiery child of the streets in Les Misérables. For the screen version, director Tom Hooper found a charming star that gives the dreary musical a punch: Daniel Huttlestone, who reprised his role from the London stage. The triple threat also gave sharp wit to another high-profile film musical, 2014’s Into the Woods, as the troubled Jack (of Beanstalk fame). He may not be done with singing onscreen, but Huttlestone will be next seen in The Lost City of Z, for director James Gray.
Recently seen by a select few in the Canadian drama Borealis, Joey King’s short career has been prolific, jumping from big-budget to small indie projects while remaining consistent at giving memorable performances. She has done action (Battle: Los Angeles), horror (The Conjuring) and some stellar voice work, notably for Oz the Great and Powerful. Her most accomplished roles: as Grace, a young girl devoted to her Jewish faith in Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, and as sweet, whip-smart Greta Grimly on FX’s Fargo. King remains one of Hollywood’s most versatile talents, and her flexible resume is resounding proof of that continuing.
After a start on Broadway, where she was part of the original cast of Matilda, Laurence has been a frequent fixture of the big and small screen. Besides a memorable episode of Orange is the New Black, Laurence powerfully held her own against Jake Gyllenhaal as his daughter in last year’s Southpaw. She has also received plaudits for anchoring the provocative indie drama Lamb. There, the 13-year-old tackled difficult subject matter with ease. On a lighter note, she can be seen in theatres this summer in Pete’s Dragon and Bad Moms.
Like Oona Laurence, Lewis has the riveting power to make his mark acting alongside Jake Gyllenhaal. TIFF premiere Demolition may have been a tricky balancing act of dark comedy and melodrama, but it is hard to find fault in Lewis’s turn as the sordidly funny Chris. As the closeted son of Naomi Watts’ character, Lewis brings pathos and some big laughs to what could have been a forgettable supporting role. With a lead role in the upcoming thriller The Babysitter, things are already looking bright for the young actor.
It takes a special presence to not just share the screen with Bill Murray, but also steal the attention away from the funnyman. It’s more impressive to do it with your feature debut. Jaeden Lieberher’s bemused deadpan worked wonderfully as precocious middle-schooler Oliver in St. Vincent, creating a memorable chemistry with the comedy legend. But Lieberher has proved to be an actor with sharp instincts. In Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, he gave an unexpectedly moving turn as a pre-teen with special powers. Up next: Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry, due in theatres this fall.
The Genie-winning drama Monsieur Lazhar benefited from a marvelous young cast. But Windsor native Sophie Nélisse’s tender portrayal of a student grappling with the death of her teacher got the most attention. For her work, she earned a Genie and Jutra award. Then, she had little problem anchoring a much larger production, the 2013 film adaptation of The Book Thief. Nélisse may be Canada’s answer to Saoirse Ronan, and the young actor could get some awards attention with future projects, such as The History of Love and Cannes premiere Mean Dreams (from Canada).
Another much-prized Canadian actor, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, catapulted to critical acclaim with his searing performance in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. Offering caustic charisma in the role of teenage misanthrope Steve, Pilon both raises our pulses and gives us a glimpse into the sadder side of a hyperactive character. His magnetism was something to behold on the screen – in the film’s boxy 1:1 ratio and its brief sojourn to widescreen – and makes Pilon an actor to keep an eye on.
In two of Australian actor Angourie Rice’s film appearances, she plays a child who encounters some carnivalesque activities at an adults-only party. In the end-of-the-world thriller These Final Hours, we view the carnal pleasures at a depraved gathering through her eyes. In the buddy comedy The Nice Guys, she aids her father (played by Ryan Gosling) in finding a missing person amidst 1970s excesses. It is a testament to Rice’s maturity and sly wit that she fits in so well to these moments, although it’s her youthful charm that gives her away. Expect more dazzling performances in the future.
As the squirrely Nate in TIFF prizewinner Sleeping Giant, Nick Serino manages to make you feel for a character one can kindly describe as “annoying.” Underneath the foul-mouthed, attention-deficit gusto is a teenager trying to grasp the last gasps of boyhood. It’s the most memorable performance in a fine Canadian drama, perhaps because Serino never descends into a stereotype. Even if Nate’s persona is hard to like, Serino gives the rascal a lovable edge. It’s one of the sharpest debut performances in years. He earned a Canadian Screen Award for a reason.
It should surprise few of the people who saw The Witch that Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the spooked daughter of a troubled family in 17th-century New England, has several films coming out in the next year. Her portrayal of Thomasin, a young woman coming to terms with dark temptations, gives a 21st-century audience a door into a story four centuries old. Her pale, expressive face would seem at home on a Gothic painting. But, it is her presence, curious and commanding, that gives the film an edge. She’s so good, it’s scary.
As cultural commentators complained about the absence of black actors at this year’s Oscars, few mentioned one of the best, purest performances of the past year. In Girlhood, a coming-of-age-drama from Céline Sciamma, Karidja Touré gives a hypnotic turn as Marieme, a shy woman who eventually becomes the leader of a popular girl gang. She captures a wide range of emotions, from vulnerability to confidence, and yet the portrayal feels effortless. Keep an eye on the French actor. To quote a line from the Rihanna song prominently featured in Girlhood, she shines bright like a diamond.
Christopher Jordan Wallace
One of Will Ferrell’s finest hours is his low-key work in the 2010 drama Everything Must Go. The film, about an alcoholic trying to unpack his life after losing his job, works best when it focuses on Ferrell’s scenes with a kind, witty neighbour, played by the young Christopher Jordan Wallace. Their moments have a quiet gravitas and notes of sharp comedy, and Wallace is every bit as poised as the funnyman with whom he shares the screen. Although absent from the screen since then, Wallace will be in the drama Kicks, opening in September.