The 10 Best Performances by a Child Actor

Children have graced the big screen for years, but rarely do their performances steal the show. We’ve compiled a list of ten great performances by a child actor.
Many directors have spoken openly about the difficulties of working with child actors. Every once in awhile, however, a child actor brings forth a tour de force nobody saw coming and puts those directors to shame. Today, we’ve compiled our ten favorite U.S. performances of all time by a child actor.
There are plenty of fantastic performances to choose from, but few have the power to truly take over a movie. On the other hand, how many times have you cringed at every word spoken by an unseasoned child actor?
Still, experience is irrelevant in this situation. Regardless of the number of Gerber baby food commercials a youngster has starred in, their age dictates they have yet to put ‘the real work in’ as the saying goes. Expectations are almost always low and that is what makes the following performances so powerful. For example, one actor on the list hadn’t acted in his life prior to his role, while another had 32 performances under her belt.
Update from the Editor: We’ve received some great feedback from readers with suggestions on young actors that they say should be on the list, so we’re going to do something unusual – We’ve compiled the suggestions and will offer readers the chance to vote for their three top picks (Leo DiCaprio and Ellen Page are not in the list because they were in their very late teens when the movies folks recommend them for were made). We’ll then update our list based on the results:
2. Christian Bale – Empire of the Sun
When we know of actors strictly for their roles as adults, it is easy to forget they were once child stars. Christian Bale is one such actor. Steven Spielberg struck gold with the 12-year-old from Wales and the film is a heart-wrenching tale of triumph at every level. I can’t speak highly enough of Empire of the Sun. Luckily, all I need to discuss is the brilliant performance turned in by a young Christian Bale.
While Spielberg loves working with children, I can’t say he’s brought many young characters to the screen that are as engrossing as Bale was. However, the 1987 war epic isn’t really about war as much as a child caught in the thick of it. Thanks to Bale’s turn as Jamie Graham, everything works: He is emotional, tireless, committed, engaging and pulls on your heart strings with the tenacity of Oscar bait.
It’s almost inhumane that he wasn’t granted an Oscar nomination. Spielberg puts Bale and his character, Jamie, through so much in 152-minutes it is amazing Bale kept his head on straight. He is as mature as any child onscreen and puts most adult actors to shame, including everybody else in Empire of the Sun.
Thanks, DuraMater!