I have a bit of a thing for people's top ten lists. Favorite films (though I rarely read all the way through lists that include Avatar, The Boondock Saints, The Departed and other "meh" movies posing as triumphs), favorite travel destinations, sushi rolls, lipsticks--anything, really. There's something appealing about the brevity and finality of such a limited list when "favorite" status is at stake. But unlike most list-makers, I will endeavor to defend my top three choices, and perhaps the explanation will give a sense of how I chose the group and why each of these kids deserves multiple viewings. So here is my ten-best list of children's performances in film (the eponymous Ethan of "Laughing Baby Ethan" was excluded solely because that's more of a documentary short):
I. Quvenzhané Wallis – Hushpuppy, Beasts of the Southern Wild - age 6, first role
II. Tatum O’Neal – Addie Loggins, Paper Moon – age 9, first role
III. Jean-Pierre Léaud – Antoine Doinel, The 400 Blows (Les 400 coups) – age 14, first role
IV. Henry Thomas – Elliott, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – age 10, third role
V. Drew Barrymore – Gertie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – age 6, fourth role
VI. Mary Badham – Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird – age 9, first role
VII. Natalie Portman – Marty, Beautiful Girls – age 14, fourth role
VIII. Shirley Temple – Marthy Jane, Little Miss Marker – age 4, twenty-fourth role
IX. Hugh O’Conor – young Christy Brown, My Left Foot – age 14, fifth role
X. Elle Fanning – Ruth Cole, The Door in the Floor – age 4, sixth role
I. In this astounding film—the first for “Venzhané,” Dwight Henry (as her father Wink) and director Benh Zeitlin—the powerhouse performance by the absurdly cute Louisiana Kindergartener is a revelation. While New Orleans pastry chef Dwight Henry’s debut performance is beautiful and heartrending, this is Hushpuppy’s tale and the preternaturally talented Quvenzhané never misses an opportunity to carry the film. Hushpuppy is tough, but her lineless face is the hardened front that hides a child's curiosity, an artistic spirit and a fascination with animals. Yet Hushpuppy rises to the tasks of bolstering her father’s declining health, weathering a devastating hurricane and flood, escaping the mandatory evacuation rescue center, staring down mythic beasts, sharing a hard-won, nostalgic last meal with her father and becoming an orphan in only a few days. All the while, Quvenzhané rises to the even greater task of realizing Hushpuppy, the heroine of the decade. (Extra points to her for how many times she’s had to spell her name for interviewers since the film’s release.)
II. If Hushpuppy is tough, Addie Loggins is pure steel, ranking Tatum O’Neal a very close second to Quvenzhané. Tatum’s groundbreaking Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress is one of the most deserved Oscars ever awarded (not that that’s saying much--and she definitely should have been considered lead actress), for in her first role ever she stars across from her real-life atrocious father Ryan O’Neal, playing somewhat atrocious father figure “Moses Pray” to her powerhouse orphaned heroine. Her disapproving frown is so penetrating it makes you want to hide under a rock til the end of time, yet her constant squint makes it seem like she’s always on the verge of smiling, softening her flinty affect just a bit. Though she learns the literal tricks of the trade from lost-boy conman Moses, Addie soon comes to beat him at his own game; her conning acumen and inexorable resolve to collect debts distinguish her as the savviest, least childlike kid in cinema. She is an absolute wonder. Too bad her parents didn’t appreciate her.
III. I had a hard time ranking Jean-Pierre third here, because his first role is one of the most harrowing in all cinema and his face of abandonment is enough to break your heart, but perhaps the 14-year-old wouldn't mind taking bronze after a couple of elementary school girls (I think J-P would be un gentilhomme about it). A misguided, mistreated boy with only one friend in all of Paris--René (played by the incredible one-film wonder Patrick Auffay, who should probably be on this list), Antoine's well-dressed, businesslike partner in cutting their punitive school and going to the movies. Since Antoine Doinel is a vaguely autobiographical character for director/film devotee François Truffaut, the shot of the two boys gazing in wonder at the cinémathèque screen speaks volumes about Truffaut's childhood relationship with movie houses; but the image also reveals what a talent Jean-Pierre really is. The utter fascination on his face, his obvious enthrallment with the film prove what a joy it is for Antoine to escape his own disheartening life for a few hours. Berated on all sides, he has no respite from psychological torture, abusive hands or shrieked insults--all the world seems to raise one voice to tell him he's a failure. So in the tragic, jarring final scene, when he runs away from his destructive "correctional" boarding school and makes it to the shore, in that last zoom towards his face as he recognizes that nothing has changed, that he still has absolutely nowhere to go, we see both Antoine's hopeless desperation and Jean-Pierre's outrageous thespian skill. No wonder they put that shot on the poster.