Friday, August 3, 2012

The “Movies” List: Child Protagonists

Posted By on Fri, Aug 3, 2012 at 2:51 PM

For this week's “Movies” List, which I first counted down this afternoon on The Chris Vernon Show, I did the best films featuring lead performances by young children. This topic is based on the indie sensation Beasts of the Southern Wild, which opened in Memphis last week (my review here) and which boasts a very strong central performance from Quvenshané Wallis.

Wallis was five or six years old when Beasts was filmed, so, with that in mind, I limited myself here to performers who were 10 or younger when the movies were shot. Middle-schoolers and teens can have their day another time.

The list:

5. Ponette (1996): Four-year-old Victoire Thivisol plays the title role as a girl trying to make sense of her mother's death through her interactions with her father, her aunt, her young cousins, and her school mates. I haven't seen this since it's 1996 release, so I'm not sure how well it holds up, but I remember it as an unusual, wrenching, but non-exploitative experience.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Nine-year old Mary Badham is the Scout Finch, from whose perspective this classic story is told. I have my issues with the film version's treatment of the issue of Southern racism — the reality of which seems secondary to asserting the dignity of the upper-class Atticus Finch — but as a film about childhood, it's very strong.

3. Where the Wild Things Are (2009): Nine-year-old Max Records is Max, the hero of Maurice Sendak's picture-book classic about childhood loneliness and imagination, brought to big-screen life more fully than seemed possible by director Spike Jonze, who makes the wise choice to use tactile effects rather than rely on computer-generated imagery. And the opening sequences, even before it morphs into the fantastical, are gripping. Tied for my second favorite film of 2009.

2. E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982): 10-year-old Henry Thomas is extraordinary as the latch-key kid who finds a alien in the shed in this, arguably Steven Spielberg's best film, which has great feel for middle-class, broken-home, suburban childhood. Thomas gets a historic assist from a six-year-old Drew Barrymore.

1. Paper Moon (1973): 8-year-old Tatum O'Neal became the youngest person to win an Oscar in any category (she was 10 at the time of the ceremony) when she took home the Best Supporting Actress award for this Depression-set road movie from director Peter Bogdanovich. This is really a co-leading performance, alongside her real-life father Ryan O'Neil, who is a small-time grifter who reluctantly takes the orphaned Addie — who may or may not be his daughter — along with him after her mother's funeral. Shot is beautiful, dusty black-and-white, the odd couple con their way through the West in a series of sharply sketched misadventures.

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