The best child actor performances from the past decade

There's an old Hollywood adage that warns "never work with animals or children." Obviously, it's meant as a joke, but working with a kid, you run the risk of getting a subpar performance. After all, younger performers don't have the life experiences of a veteran star, and they're still working on perfecting their craft. But there are exceptions to every rule, and every so often, you get a young talent like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense or Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon — children who put their older peers to shame. 

So who are the Haley Joel Osments and Tatum O'Neals of today? Well, as it turns out, they're pretty much anyplace a film fan might think to look. You can find them in indie horror films, critically acclaimed dramas, and big budget blockbusters, where they've delivered some of the most memorable work in recent cinema. From little children to young teens, these are the best child actor performances from the past decade.

Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

When Quvenzhané Wallis made her film debut in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she stormed onto the screen with firecrackers in both hands, letting loose with a mighty roar. Wallis was only five when she was cast for the part of Hushpuppy, beating out more than 3,500 other hopefuls. She was such a fierce and ferocious actor that director Behn Zeitlin actually altered the character based on her personality, making Hushpuppy tougher, more determined, and possessing a stronger sense of right and wrong.

The plot of this 2012 fantasy follows Hushpuppy and her adventures in the Bathtub, an impoverished community off the coast of Louisiana. There's a major hurricane bearing down on Hushpuppy's home, and there's a rumbling of aurochs (gigantic, extinct pig-cows) in the distance. But despite impending doom, Hushpuppy isn't going to let life get her down. Instead, she spends her days communicating with animals, roaming through the swamps, and butting heads with her equally obstinate dad (Dwight Henry).

The movie is narrated by Wallis, and she's dropping pearls of wisdom the entire time, sounding like a seven-year-old sage (her age when she finished filming). The moments when she pauses to pick up chickens and listen to their heartbeats are truly beautiful, and they provide a nice contrast to the scenes when she's fighting her abusive father or standing on a table, flexing her muscles for all the world to see and screaming at the top of her lungs in victory. Peter Travers described Wallis as a "flat-out amazement" and Roger Ebert called her a "force of nature," but Zeitlin probably gave the best description when he called Wallis "a warrior."

Ellar Coltrane as Mason in Boyhood (2014)

Whether you loved it or thought it was overrated, there's no denying that Boyhood is truly unique. Directed by Richard Linklater, the movie was filmed over 12 years, allowing us to watch the characters grow up onscreen. And while it featured brilliant performances from Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, the movie's success rests on the shoulders of Ellar Coltrane. Playing a Texas kid named Mason, Coltrane was only six when he started filming, and while he'd had some experience in commercials and one indie film, signing on to a 12-year-old project was a big step up.

Despite the new challenges, Coltrane was phenomenal, especially in the early stages as a young boy. While he lacks the polish of a Hollywood professional, Coltrane feels incredibly natural. There's a realness you wouldn't get from your typical child star. And his performance is full of nice little moments, like staring mournfully at a dead bird or, before moving to a new home, taking a beat before reluctantly painting over the growth chart on his door frame. Then there's the scene where his abusive stepdad forces him to get a haircut, and Coltrane's face is pure pain and rage. According to Linklater, that was some serious acting, as Coltrane actually hated having long hair.

Of course, Coltrane isn't the only incredible kid here. Lorelei Linklater, playing Mason's sister, gives a show-stealing performance that's equally important. She provides a nice counterbalance to Coltrane's understated style, and honestly, we wished there'd been a sequel called Girlhood. But ultimately, Coltrane is the star here, sharing secrets with his dad, arguing with his sister, struggling with his mom, and making it all feel totally real.

Kiernan Shipka as Kat in The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015)

Directed by Oz Perkins, The Blackcoat's Daughter isn't your typical exorcist flick. In addition to the decapitation and demonic possession, it's a movie about loneliness, abandonment, and the need for safety. And this icy film works so well thanks to its three leads: Emma Roberts, Lucy Boynton, and Kiernan Shipka. While Roberts and Boynton are phenomenal, it's Shipka who owns this movie, morphing from a frightened little girl into the creepiest killer since Norman Bates.

Set a snowbound boarding school, The Blackcoat's Daughter tells the story of a freshman named Kat (Shipka) who panics when her parents don't pick her up at the end of the semester. Thanks to some super freaky dreams, Kat worries something awful has happened to her mom and dad, and soon, she's absolutely consumed with fear. So when a sinister force offers Kat some company, the young high school student accepts the offer. As she sees it, it's better to make a deal with the devil than deal with the terrifying feeling of being alone.

Best known for her work in Mad Men and The Legend of Korra, Shipka does a brilliant job reminding viewers what it's like being an anxious kid, crippled with paranoia and worried your parents might be gone forever. And after going from a frightened little lamb to a demon-possessed slasher, you can totally see the devil flickering in Shipka's eyes. It's almost as if she went method here and actually invited an evil spirit to set up shop in her soul. The way she smiles at her victims is genuinely unsettling, but her performance is so powerful because before she goes full-on Regan, Shipka gives us a sympathetic kid who just wants to go home with her parents.

Jacob Tremblay as Jack in Room (2015)

Based on the critically acclaimed book by Emma Donoghue, Room tells the story of Ma and Jack, a mother and son imprisoned inside a shed by a rapist named Old Nick. Hoping to keep her son's sanity intact, Ma convinces Jack that their little shed — affectionately known as "Room" — is all that exists in the world. Outside that door, there's nothing but space. Jack doesn't realize how strange his isolated life really is, but when Ma hatches an escape plan, Jack's tiny little world comes crashing down, and soon he finds himself in a big new universe that stretches on forever.

In the wrong hands, the role of Jack would've been a complete disaster. And the filmmakers were taking a huge risk by casting seven-year-old Jacob Tremblay. This little boy had never experienced the trauma of being imprisoned. He couldn't remember the wonder of seeing the vast blue sky for the first time. How could your average kid even dream of capturing Jack's experiences? As producer David Gross told The Hollywood Reporter, "If [Tremblay's] performance didn't work, we were a Lifetime movie." But Tremblay was absolutely earth-shattering as Jack, giving a shockingly subtle and nuanced performance that won the young actor a roomful of awards.

When Jack is told that there's a whole wide world outside of "Room," Tremblay is convincing as a child suffering a true existential crisis. When he discovers Ma (Brie Larson) dying from an overdose, the look of fear on his face is devastating. When he's licked for the first time by a friendly dog, he gives a little laugh that just melts your heart. Tremblay is only seven here, but despite his young age, we totally believe this is the first time he's seen a car, a city, or a human besides his mom or his captor. While Brie Larson rightly won the Oscar for her performance, we wish the Academy had given Tremblay an Oscar nod, because his turn in Room is a child performance for the ages.

Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Directed by Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople stars Julian Dennison as the indomitable Ricky Baker, a wannabe gangster with a good heart. Sure, he steals, spits, and throws rocks, but underneath his Tupac persona, Ricky is just a kid desperate for a family. After all, he's spent most of his life as a ward of the state, so when he's sent to live in the New Zealand bush with his eccentric "Aunt" Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and his cranky "Uncle" Hec (Sam Neill), he thinks he's finally found a new home. But after Bella dies, Ricky and Heck take off into the forest, hoping to escape a legion of ninjas, dire wolves, and child welfare workers.

Waititi cast Dennison as Ricky Baker after working with the kid on a commercial, and it was a fantastic decision — he has perfect comic timing and certainly knows how to drop a devastating zinger. (There's a reason he was cast in Deadpool 2.) At the same time, he knows when to forget the wisecracking attitude and show us soul-crushing sadness or wide-eyed wonder. Compare the sweet scene when he's singing his own birthday song to the moment when he goes full-on action hero, rifle in hand. Or contrast the moment when he's roasting Hec for his illiteracy to his tongue-tied silence in front of a pretty girl and her over-excited dad. Whether he's sending us into hysterics or making us all misty-eyed (that water bottle scene, ugh), Dennison's performance here is truly majestical.

Oakes Fegley as Pete in Pete's Dragon (2016)

Sometimes a child actor takes control of the camera with overpowering charisma, but that isn't the kind of performance you get from Oakes Fegley in Pete's Dragon. With his scruffy hair and winning smile, Fegley scales everything back and gives an incredibly gentle turn as the world's friendliest wild child…who just so happens to be friends with a fuzzy green dragon.

Directed by David Lowery, this modern-day spin on the 1977 Disney film takes place in the Pacific Northwest, and follows a park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) as she discovers a strange little boy lurking in the woods. Pete has been living in the forest for quite some time, but he isn't alone. His best friend and guardian is Elliott, a dragon that's like a cross between a lovable dinosaur and an oversized St. Bernard. Of course, on set, there's not a dragon in sight, which makes it all the more impressive as Fegley frolics with his CGI pal or kindly coaxes the nonexistent creature out of its hiding place.

Props are also due Levi Alexander, an even younger actor who plays Pete as a toddler. Abandoned in the woods after his parents' car crash, this tiny kid is fantastic as a terrified tot, lost and alone. But as far as child performances go, this is Fegley's film, and just like the movie itself, he's kind and charming and proof that you don't always need to go big to make a memorable impression. In a movie about fire-breathing dragons, a little restraint and a lot of heart goes a long way.

Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh in It (2017)

Bill Skarsgård earned a lot of praise for his horrifying performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The man definitely deserved credit for putting a new spin on such an iconic character, but ultimately, It works so well thanks to its talented young cast. The seven kids who make up the Losers Club are the heart and soul of Andy Muschietti's film. Their love, friendship, and fear is what drives the movie, so it's incredible that every kid — from Jeremy Ray Taylor as the lovable Ben to Jack Dylan Grazer as the twitchy Eddie Kaspbrak — is a top-notch actor. But if we have to pick one to stand above the rest, it's got to be Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh.

The sole female member of the Losers Club, Beverly is definitely the bravest of the bunch. She isn't afraid to chase after Pennywise or save a friend from psychopathic bullies. At the same time, Beverly struggles with challenges the rest of the club will never have to face, like her abusive father and a world of leering men. Plus, it doesn't help matters that there's a murderous clown lurking in her bathroom sink. Pick the wrong actress, and you might get a super-tough stereotype or a damsel in distress, but Lillis wonderfully balances Bev's fear with her indomitable strength, giving a powerful portrayal of a teenage girl struggling with her burgeoning womanhood, sexuality, and a wish to kill an evil cosmic entity.

Really, it's easy to see why Lillis would want Jessica Chastain to play Bev in the sequel. Both Chastain and Lillis have that same toughness, confidence, and determination. And just like Chastain, it's easy to imagine Sophia Lillis becoming a big-star.

Brooklynn Prince as Moonee in The Florida Project (2017)

In 2017's The Florida Project, director Sean Baker filled his cast with children he discovered at motels and grocery stores, but the real casting coup came when he found Brooklynn Prince. According to IndieWire, Baker went through hundreds of potential leads before he discovered the precocious six-year-old, and when he brought her into audition, Baker realized he had a pint-sized star on his hands.

Prince already had four years of acting experience when she was cast as Moonee, a rambunctious troublemaker who spends her time exploring Kissimmee, Florida, but she doesn't act like your typical show biz kid. Playing alongside the Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe, Prince feels 100 percent natural, like an actual kid you might find hanging outside an ice cream stand or running through a motel parking lot. She's the most gleefully mischievous child, and you can tell how much she enjoys spitting on cars, busting up abandoned houses, and swearing at adults. (Prince admitted to The Guardian, "When I heard I was gonna say those bad words [in the movie], I was like, 'YeeHAW!"]

Thanks to her unbridled joy, Prince makes Moonee the most adorable troublemaker in the world, but there's a quite a bit of sadness under all that exuberance. In the final scenes, as Moonee's life starts to crumble, Prince turns on the waterworks, and as she realizes that everything is changing forever, her quivering lip is like a punch in the gut. Whether she's wandering past incredibly tacky architecture, harassing Dafoe, or running away with her best friend, Prince is an incredible young actress who never seems to run out of emotion or energy. 

Dafne Keen as Laura in Logan (2017)

In Logan, Dafne Keen is a feral force of nature, a terrifying combo of blood, steel, and adorableness. She's a miniature murderer with adamantium claws, who sports cheap sunglasses and decapitates fools who get in her way. This character is absolutely ferocious, more like a wolverine than the titular X-Man himself. But even though she slices and dices her fair share of villains, Keen's character is still a little girl, and when she's not butchering bad guys, she's reading comic books, trying to go back and forth on a kiddie ride, and hoping to find a family.

Directed by James Mangold, Logan focuses on the last adventure of the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), as he's forced to defend a mutant girl named Laura (Keen) from a psycho scientist and his gang of mercenaries. The movie is part Western, part road trip, and totally Keen's show, as she gives Jackman everything he can handle. (Even in her audition, this little kid went toe-to-toe with the Hollywood vet, asking to go off-script and more than handling her share of intense improv.) Making the whole thing even more impressive, Keen spends a huge chunk of the film just growling, but when she finally speaks, she switches back forth from Spanish to English, keeping Jackman on his toes in two different languages.

But while Keen definitely nailed the animal intensity, there's a lot of humanity here too. As pointed out by film critic Amy Nicholson, Keen's character "feels real, even when she's sucking bullets out of her own arm. Though she barely speaks…she's still an ordinary, obnoxious girl who won't stop screwing with the door locks in the getaway car." And for all her snarling, Keen will rip your heart out when she gives a tearful monologue from the movie Shane. It's a powerhouse performance in one of the all-time best superhero films, and honestly, we'd love it if somebody made a movie all about this cute killer mutant.

Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija in Okja (2017)

It's one thing to act across from a human being. It's a completely different thing to act across from a CGI creature. You can't play off emotions or physical cues, so the heavy lifting falls to the sole living person onscreen. That would be a tough challenge for a veteran star, but it has to be ten times harder for an up-and-coming child actor. And that's what makes Ahn Seo-hyun's performance in Okja so impressive. For a good chunk of the film, she's interacting with a super pig that's not actually there, but while her porcine pal doesn't exist in real life, this Korean actress helps us believe in the CGI beast by giving her part everything she's got.

The plot to Bong Joon-ho's bonkers film involves a teenage girl named Mija who's spent the past ten years bonding with Okja, an oversized pig that resembles a friendly hippo. The two are absolutely inseparable, but when a shady corporation takes Okja away, our young hero travels from South Korea to New York to rescue her beloved buddy. When Mija finally squares off against her corporate enemies, she's fierce and determined. But when she's with Okja, her emotions run the gamut from peaceful bliss to heart-wrenching sadness. Of course, in these scenes with Okja, Ahn is acting across from specialized rigs comprised of Okja heads and not much else. And in a few scenes, she's working with a guy wearing a great big foam costume.

Needless to say, she does a fantastic job working alongside these Okja contraptions, but she also shines alongside big names like Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano. For proof of the girl's prowess, just watch her tense and tearful showdown with Tilda Swinton. This little girl more than holds her own with the Oscar winner, and while she's not the craziest or most flamboyant character, she's the movie's emotional anchor, keeping a film full of clowns and cutthroats grounded with her touching performance.