21 Child Actors Who Were Incredible In Their Breakthrough Roles

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A collage of images from Minari, Boyhood, Harry Potter, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Parent Trap, and ET

By now it is well documented that the life of a child actor can be an often challenging one. Thrust into the spotlight, they’re taken from school, taught by tutors on set, start working well before typical employment age, and are typically surrounded by nothing but adults. They’re often forced to act in scenes about more mature social issues, they’re held to the standards of their highly lauded co-stars, and if their films gain awards season buzz, they’re flown around the world for dozens of press events and awards shows. It can be a tough life (and one that has led to disastrous consequences for some), but boy oh boy is it pure magic when they deliver the goods.

For as long as movies have been made, they’ve needed children to star in them, and MANY MANY of those performances have been unremarkable, teetering into downright bad. Occasionally though, a child actor is so talented or so charming or so well cast that they leap off the screen, and you just can’t help falling in love with them. And mileage varies on if they’ll choose to continue acting (or continue to be good at it), but we will forever have that one performance cementing their legacy.

This weekend we add Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord to the pantheon of great child actors. Francis-DeFord plays the younger version of Sammy Fabelman, the lead role in Steven Speilberg’s semi-autobiographical film, The Fabelmans. While Francis-DeFord passes the role along to Gabriel LaBelle in the back half film, he is incredibly engaging during the film’s opening. Watching him light up on-screen got me thinking about other child stars that have done the same. What follows is a catalog of impeccable child stars and the roles that launched them into stardom.

Graphic: Ryan Pattie; Images: Jess Pinkham/Fox Searchlight, Matt Lankes/IFC Films, Universal, Warner Bros, Josh Ethan Johnson/A24, Buena Vista Pictures – All Courtesy Everett Collection

1.Akeelah and the Bee (2006) — Keke Palmer

Keke Palmer leans up against a wall

If you’re looking for the fairy tale ending to a child star narrative, it’s hard to find a happier one than Keke Palmer’s. Palmer burst onto the scene back in 2006 playing Akeelah Anderson, a bright eleven-year-old girl who attempts to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. On her quest, she is aided by Laurence Fishburne, her coach, and (hopefully future Oscar nominee) Angela Bassett, who plays her mother, and Palmer easily keeps up with the two megastars. Of course, her magnetic charm here paved the way for her Disney Channel debut in Jump In, the jump roping film, the following year. More recently Palmer has hosted Password, starred in Hustlers and Nope, and had no idea who Dick Cheney is.

I’d also like to make a quick aside and say that Keke Palmer’s sister LC recently appeared on my favorite new reality show, Claim to Fame, in which the relatives of famous people compete to keep their “claim to fame” a secret. LC is just as delightful as Keke, but revealed on the show that Keke’s birth name is actually Lauren, named after her dad Lawrence, who named his four daughters Lauren, Loreal, Lawrence, and Lawrencia. Now I’d like to see Akeelah try to keep those names straight and spell them correctly.

Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

2.Angels in the Outfield (1994) — Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Danny GLover holds Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Milton Davis, Jr.

Another nearly flawless child star-to-Hollywood A-lister transition is that of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. While Angels in the Outfield certainly wasn’t his film debut (he’d been acting in TV and film since 1988), it was his first major breakout in a lead role. JGL plays Roger Bomman, a foster child who believes that if the California Angels win the pennant that he’ll be reunited with his birth family. When he prays for help, a guardian angel (in the form of Christopher Lloyd) appears to help rouse the derelict Angels to victory and JGL meets Danny Glover along the way. It is impossible to watch this film and not root for Roger and his mop of hair. He would be cast in 3rd Rock from the Sun two years later, launching a long career that has culminated most recently in The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Super Pumped.

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

3.Atonement (2007) — Saoirse Ronan

Saoirse Ronan reads a note

And going three-for-three in child actors who gracefully transitioned to adult careers, we have Miss Saoirse (rhymes with “inertia”) Ronan. The actor, who so succinctly reminded us to not be republicans in Lady Bird, vaulted into the cinematic consciousness as the youngest Briony in the adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel. Set over several decades, Briony must grapple with a choice she made as a child and how that choice impacted her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) over the years. While Ronan is joined by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave in playing Briony, she was the only actor from the Best Picture nominee to secure an acting nomination. This would be the first of four for Ronan who later scooped up nominations for Brooklyn, Lady Bird, and Little Women. It seems like only a manner of time before she takes home the gold.

Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

4.Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) — Quvenzhané Wallis

Quvenzhane Wallis holds a bird in her hand

While Saoirse Ronan was only 13 years old when she was nominated for her first Oscar, she was somehow a whopping four years older than Quvenzhane Wallis was when she was nominated for Best Actress in Beast of the Southern Wild. The youngest Best Actress nominee ever (and the third youngest acting nominee of any gender) Wallis received rave reviews as Hushpuppy, a girl on a fantasy adventure through the Louisiana bayou. Her performance was so powerful and charming that despite this being her first film role, she scooped up dozens of awards and nominations. At only 19 (insane), Wallis hasn’t had as much time to mature as some of the actors on this list, but she appeared in 12 Years a Slave, Beyonce’s Lemonade, and most recently had a major role in Swagger, an Apple TV+ show based on Kevin Durant’s life.

Jess Pinkham/Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection

5.Belfast (2021) — Jude Hill

Jude Hill holds a trash can lid shield an sword

A much more recent addition to the child actor roster is Jude Hill, who made his acting debut last year in the Best Picture nominee, Belfast. Playing Buddy, a stand-in for writer/director Kenneth Branagh in his semi-autobiographical tale about Ireland during The Troubles, Hill oozed dimpled charm as he raced around a black-and-white Belfast. Hill, who acted against legends like Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench (both of whom were Oscar-nominated), was the heart of the film, doing much of the heavy lifting to make the narrative as audience-friendly as it was. Hill also won the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Young Performer, perhaps the most coveted prize for child actors outside of the rare Oscar nomination itself. (Wallis and Ronan both also won the award and Palmer received a nomination.) Hill appeared in the Magpie Murders earlier this year and is set to star in A Haunting in Venice, the latest in Branagh’s Agatha Christie series which will also star his Belfast dad Jamie Dornan.

Rob Youngston/Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

6.Boyhood (2014) — Ellar Coltrane

Ellar Coltrane lies in the grass

Mileage may vary on how exceptional of an actor you think Ellar Coltrane may be, and he’s certainly had a less glitzy career after the Best Picture nominee than some of our other child stars have. Much of the reason for this is that Coltrane was cast to play Mason Evans Jr., the titular boy in Boyhood, when he was only six years old. Filming over eleven years for Richard Linklater’s slow-burning ode to growing up, however, Coltrane matured in a way that no other child actor has experienced. While Coltrane is infectious and precocious in the early years of shooting (and nabbed the Critic’s Choice prize because of it), he’s a bit stilted and awkward in the later sequences of the film as a teen. While I will forever adore this movie, and his performance in it — one of the great child actor turns of the modern era — you can see how he’s been finding his way since the film’s release. Here’s to hoping for a resurgence in the near future!

Matt Lankes/IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

7.E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) — Henry Thomas

Henry Thomas rides a bike with ET in the basket

One of the OG great child actor performances comes from Henry Thomas who plays Elliott in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, E.T. Spielberg works extremely well with kids (Jurassic Park, Hook, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and this is no exception. The film, which centers on a child who finds and befriends an alien, depends heavily on Thomas’s performance, one that could be especially difficult given he’s acting against a puppet for much of the film. While this film also launched Drew Barrymore’s career, Thomas is at the center from start to finish, and it’s his endearing relationship with E.T. that skyrocketed this film to become the highest-grossing film of all time (until it was topped by Jurassic Park). While Henry Thomas did not go on to become a household name, he has worked consistently since the film’s release and has recently starred in a number of Mike Flanagan productions including The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass.

Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

8.The Fabelmans (2022) — Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord

Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, and Michelle Williams sit in movie theater chairs

And while we’re chatting about Spielberg’s brilliance in casting children, we might as well chat about his latest find, the boy who is essentially playing young Steven Spielberg (here named Sammy Fabelman). Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord has only the one IMDb credit to date, so we have no idea where his career might take him, but he’s incredibly charming here. As young Sammy, he falls in love with film, watching a train crash at the movie theater and then begging his mom to help him film one of his own with a model train set. He’s cute, he’s funny, and he’s gonna be on every award show carpet this year in a little suit!

Currently in theaters. Buy tickets at Fandango or Cinemark.

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

9.The Florida Project (2017) — Brooklynn Prince

Christopher RIvera, Brooklynn Prince, and Valeria Cotto sit together with ice cream in a parking lot

Perhaps my favorite film on this list is The Florida Project, an indie drama about a little girl and her mother who live in an extended-stay motel while they try and make ends meet. Brooklynn Prince plays Moonee, a six-year-old often left to her own devices while her mother works, menacing the other motel patrons and local businesses. The film is gorgeously shot and the performances, from mostly non-actors, are real and raw. Prince and her mother (Bria Vinaite) have a complex relationship that’s a mix of profound love and disastrous ignorance. Prince deservedly took home the Critics Choice Movie Award for Best Young Performer and has been working ever since. You may recognize her from The Turning, Settlers, or Home Before Dark. Ugh. I still get emo thinking about this movie’s final scene.

A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

10.Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) — Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint all scream in Hogwarts robes

Find me a more famous trio of child actors than those that played Harry, Ron, and Hermione for all eight Harry Potter movies. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint first appeared in Sorcerer’s Stone as tweens back in 2001 but didn’t conclude their roles for a decade, putting them well into adulthood. Playing three of the most iconic characters in all of literature, the trio will forever be household names even if they will never quite reach the level of stardom they attained as children. Presumably set for life monetarily, all three have chosen mostly smaller indie roles since finishing with Potter with Radcliffe most recently playing Al Yankovic in Weird, Watson playing Meg in Little Women, and Grint set to star in M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film, Knock at the Cabin. SOMEDAY, some savvy filmmaker is going to put them back together in something. Right?

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

11.IT (2017) — Jack Dylan Grazer, Jaeden Martell, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, and Finn Wolfhard

Jack Dylan Grazer, Jaeden Martell, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor and Finn Wolfhard all look up in horror

It truly must have been a casting director’s nightmare. Good luck finding one charismatic child star let alone seven. The adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a murderous clown and the gang of misfit kids who take him down stars a motley cohort of seven. And while Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard, who plays class clown Richie, and St. Vincent‘s Jaeden Martell, who plays the team leader Bill, were known entities, the other five were not. And yet, Jack Dylan Grazer (the sickly Eddie), Chosen Jacobs (the sweet outsider Mike), Wyatt Oleff (the ill-fated Stan), Sophia Lillis (Beverly, the only girl in the group), and Jeremy Ray Taylor (the lovesick Ben) are each impeccable in their roles. While It may have been a nightmare to cast, it has certainly made other casting director’s jobs much easier as the entire cast have been given numerous roles since and just keep popping up more and more places (which I’m all good with as long as those places aren’t city drains).

Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

12.Jojo Rabbit (2019) — Roman Griffin Davis

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis stand up against a wall together

The 2019 winner of the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Young Performer is Roman Griffin Davis, adding yet another recipient of the award to my illustrious list. Like Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Jude Hill, Davis showed up to Jojo Rabbit without any previous movie acting experience, and yet he snatches scene after scene out from under veterans like Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, and Taika Waititi. Davis plays Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, a member of the Hitler Youth, who is trying to learn to be a good Nazi, even as his mother (Johansson) is teaching him that Nazis and his idol Adolf Hitler are actually terrible people. Davis handles the internal emotional conflict perfectly, and, especially in the darker second half of the film, he’s able to really nail a wide range of emotions. Thank goodness he finally ditches the Hitler Youth. NOT a group you want to be associated with.

Kimberly French/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

13.Kick-Ass (2010) — Chloe Grace Moretz

Chloe Grace Moretz dressed as a tiny superhero

Chloe Grace Moretz is one of those child stars who has been acting FOREVER. When she burst out onto the scene in 2010 as the foul-mouthed Hit-Girl in the vigilante superhero comedy, Kick-Ass, she’d already been acting for over six years (crazy because she looks like she is six years old in the film). While the film did surprisingly well in theaters, earning cult status and a sequel, the breakout star was Moretz, who learned lines of profanity-laced dialogue without even knowing what some of the words meant. Moretz has, of course, continued on with her career with the same tenacity she possessed before Kick-Ass, having appeared in 32 feature films since (more than the filmography of about half of this list combined). She’s pretty %#!$&@#ing good at her job.

Daniel Smith/Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

14.Lion (2016) — Sunny Pawar

Sunny Pawar rides on a train

While Lion is the story of one boy, it is the story of two actors, one getting lost and the other trying to be found again. Based on a true story, Lion follows Saroo Brierley, a small boy from India who one day gets trapped on a train traveling hundreds of miles, can’t find his way home, and is adopted by an Australian couple. Then as an adult, he decides to use Google Maps to try and find the village he grew up in. With Dev Patel playing the older Saroo, you obviously needed an undeniably adorable actor as young Saroo and Sunny Pawar certainly fit the brief. He was a delight in the film, a delight during the awards circuit, and a delight in every photo he took with the towering Patel. Because Pawar’s native tongue isn’t English, his work since Lion has mostly been in Indian films, but I’m waiting for him to pop back up in something stateside.

Mark Rogers/The Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

15.Minari (2020) — Alan Kim

Alan Kim wears a striped shirt outdoors

Another of our recent “this is the cutest damn thing on the awards circuit” actors is Alan Kim. I defy anyone to find something cuter on the internet (puppies and baby penguins be damned) than Kim winning the Critics Choice Award, slowly breaking down into tears, and then whispering to himself, “I hope this isn’t a dream.” Kim, another first-time actor, played David Yi in the 2020 Best Picture nominee, a film about a family of South Korean immigrants who move to rural Arkansas. David is a young prankster who spars perfectly with his grandmother (Oscar-winning Youn Yuh-jung) but has big emotional moments in the film as well. While Kim, who became famous during the pandemic, hasn’t appeared in any films released since, he has several on the docket including a role in Molly Gordon’s directorial debut, Theater Camp, which I am VERY MUCH looking forward to watching.

Josh Ethan Johnson/A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

16.Moonlight (2016) — Alex R. Hibbert

Mahershala Ali holds Alex R. Hibbert in the water

As with Lion, this Best Picture winner follows one character over a period of time played by different actors. While the teen and twentysomething Chirons, played by Trevante Rhodes and Ashton Sanders, are exceptional, I’d argue that the youngest Chiron, played by Hibbert, really does a lot of the heavy lifting early on to set up the story. He’s the one who has the most screen time with Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali (including the swimming scene that won Ali his Oscar), he first encounters his mother, and it’s him who confusedly learns what it means to be gay. Hibbert was exceptional in his role and was plucked up for a brief role in Black Panther before becoming a series regular on The Chi where he’s been ever since. No longer a little boy, it will be exciting to see him return to film as he’s got several projects in the works.

David Bornfriend/A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

17.The Parent Trap (1998) — Lindsay Lohan

Two Lindsay Lohans sit on a hay bale together

Sure, most of the kids on this list played one character well. So what? Lindsay Lohan played not only Hallie Parker, the cool tomboy from Napa, but also Annie James, the posh Londoner in this story of twins who meet at summer camp. This was Lohan’s first film and BOY OH BOY did she deliver. “I have class and you don’t.” Picking the white top hat. Perfectly executing the handshake with Martin. The woman is a living legend. Not only is The Parent Trap one of the best movies ever made (with one of the best soundtracks ever created), but Lindsay Lohan is brilliantly infectious in it. She, of course, went on to stun in similarly wonderful films like Freaky Friday and Mean Girls (and is currently making a comeback in Falling for Christmas), but I’m not sure there is a way to top The Parent Trap. A perfect film from start to finish.

Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

18.The Piano (1993) — Anna Paquin

Anna Paquin in a bonnet

We’ve got another Oscar nominee on our hands. The Academy Award-nominated children are few and far between but Anna Paquin’s performance in The Piano is undeniable. It was her first film role and she came out the gate swinging as Flora McGrath, the daughter of a mute woman who is sold into a New Zealand marriage by her father and only communicates through sign language. Due to Ada’s (Holly Hunter) muteness, Paquin has to do a lot of heavy lifting with her own dialogue and serves it masterfully. Of course, Paquin has gone on to star in numerous other projects including helming True Blood and famously only saying seven words in The Irishman.

Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

19.Room (2015) — Jacob Tremblay

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson make art out of eggs

Perhaps the most successful child star of recent history is Jacob Tremblay, who burst on the scene as Jack Newsome, the long-haired boy at the center of Room. The adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel about a mother and son held hostage in a shed requires a lot of Tremblay who is the only actor on-screen aside from Oscar Winner Brie Larson for much of the film. Tremblay, of course, took home the Critics’ Choice prize, but more than that, cemented himself as THE go-to child actor of the 2010s, taking roles in Wonder, The Predator, Doctor Sleep, and Good Boys. He also provided his voice in Luca and will be playing Flounder in the upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid. Now a lanky 16-year-old, it will be exciting to see where his career goes as he transitions into more adult roles.

Caitlin Cronenberg/A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

20.The Sixth Sense (1999) — Haley Joel Osment

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment stand in the bedroom

The quintessential child star of the early aughts was Haley Joel Osment, who took the world by storm as the forlorn ghost psychic child in M. Night Shyamalan’s blockbuster The Sixth Sense. He can famously see dead people and delivers iconic scene after iconic scene in his march to an eventual Oscar nomination. The Jacob Tremblay of his time, Osment followed up The Sixth Sense with a string of incredible performances in Pay It Forward, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Country Bears (which I will say is extremely underrated), and Secondhand Lions. While he doesn’t act nearly as much nowadays, he still works regularly on a myriad of projects (including video games voicing), and I’m rooting for a big juicy comeback.

Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

21.True Grit (2010) — Hailee Steinfeld

Hailee Steinfeld aims a gun

Last, but certainly not least, we have Hailee Steinfeld who went from obscurity to an Oscar nomination in the span of a year with this John Wayne remake. Playing Mattie Ross, a young girl who hires a gunman to kill the man who murdered her father, Steinfeld has plenty of meaty scenes opposite Jeff Bridges and his eyepatch. Since her career’s powerful start she’s continued to churn out good work as an actor and a singer. She’s had several radio hits and appeared in two Pitch Perfect films, but also starred in The Edge of Seventeen, Bumblebee, and more recently, Dickinson and Hawkeye. We’ll be excited to see where she pops up again in the Marvel universe, as you know they love a cameo!

Lorey Sebastian/Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

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