20 Greatest Child Actor Performances Of All Time

One of the hottest shows in the world right now is Stranger Things 2 and much of that is credited to the acting… of a bunch of 12 year olds. The kids on this show are giving masterclasses on acting every. single. episode.

But they aren’t the only child actors to kill it on screen. There have been plenty of award winning, highly praised child actor performances over the years. Keep reading for some of the best child performances of all time!

1. Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon (1973)

Real life father-daughter duo Tatum and Ryan O’Neal star as a father and daughter in middle America during the Great Depression. The role garnered Tatum an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress at the tender age of ten years old! This makes her the youngest recipient of an Academy Award EVER. O’Neal set the bar pretty high for child actors after this performance.

2. Henry Thomas, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

While the film may be about E.T. himself, it’s Elliot that shines. As the young boy who creates a deep, emotional (and psychic) connection with the alien, Thomas doesn’t merely go through the motions. He portrays his boyish friendship with the alien as well as quiet sadness when E.T. seemingly “dies.” He also acts along Drew Barrymore, who was a formidable child actor, and still steals the show.

3. Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone (1990)

Can you think of a child star more precocious and cunning than Culkin in the Home Alone films? Didn’t think so. His role as Kevin McCallister is so iconic that his shocked face frequently adorns shirts, bags, and all kinds of merch. Plus the Home Alone films are on TV all the time. Culkin is funny and childlike but still wholly believable as the kind of kid who could outsmart some robbers. Definitely a feel-good role from a great child actor.

4. Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

This dark comedy is special because it shows a kid who isn’t perfect and has the same fears and anxieties so many have. She also was dealing with her highly dysfunctional family and thrust into a few situations she probably shouldn’t have been. Relatable. The message Abigail sends is clear: be yourself and f%*!the rest. Breslin shines as a little girl who, despite knowing she isn’t the prettiest, is still determined to go out there and win her damn beauty pageant. It’s admirable, and it definitely makes me jealous of a kid’s self-confidence.

5. River Phoenix, Stand By Me (1986)

This coming of age film has all the ’80s heavyweights: Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, and the impressive River Phoenix. Phoenix plays Chris, a young boy from a troublesome family trying to find a dead body with his friends. He doesn’t play the character as a one-note bad kid, though, he adds depth to troubled Chris. Unfortunately, Phoenix’s film career was relegated to child and teen roles as the actor overdosed at 23.

6. Anna Paquin, The Piano (1993)

Paquin’s first film role is also one of her greatest of all time. She won an Academy Award for her role at the age of 11, only one year older than the youngest recipient, Tatum O’Neal. In the film, she plays the daughter of a mute pianist and had to actually learn sign language for the role. Paquin’s gone on to have a massive, successful career and is best known these days as Sookie from True Blood.

7. Leonardo DiCaprio, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Before he was the world’s biggest movie star, he was playing Johnny Depp‘s brother in this early ’90s film. The film came out when he was 19 years old, but since they started filming before he turned 18, we’re still going to count it as a child’s performance. As developmentally disabled Arnie, DiCaprio gives an intense, star-making performance. He was even nominated for the first of many Academy Awards he would unjustly lose over the years. The world should’ve known then that this young boy would grow up to be one of the defining actors of this generation.

8. Christian Bale, Empire of the Sun (1987)

It’s tough working on a war film. It’s even tougher when you’re 12. Bale plays Jim, a young boy who’s separated from his parents in Shanghai and ends up being taken prisoner by Japanese troops. Bale plays the emotional response of a boy forced to grow up too soon wonderfully. His turn from spoiled brat to maturation is exhilarating to watch. It’s no wonder Bale would end up becoming a force in the biz, lighting up screens as Batman and crazy serial killers.

9. Noah Schnapp, Stranger Things (2016-2017)

During the show’s first season, viewers didn’t see a whole lot of Schnapp’s Will Byers, mostly because the entire first season was spent following everyone else trying to rescue him from the upside down. In the second season though, Schnapp is a superstar. His portrayal of Byers’s PTSD from his time in the upside down and other emotional scenes with such power you can’t help but feel everything he’s feeling. It’s extraordinary to watch Schnapp act through such pain and complexities at such a young age. Those Stranger Things kids are definitely going to have long, fruitful careers.

10. Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense (1999)

One of the most iconic lines in cinema history belongs to Osment as a kid: “I see dead people.” The line and the film propelled the young actor into the spotlight for his performance as a boy who is able to see and speak to the dead. His performance garnered him several award nominations, including an Academy Award. He’s less active in the acting world today, but he’ll always be the “I see dead people” kid.

11. Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

It’s rare that an actor’s first film is any good. It’s even rarer that they receive an Academy Award nomination for it and tons of people singing their praises. Wallis is that rarity, becoming the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award at nine years old. In the film, she plays Hushpuppy, a young survivalist living with her ailing father in the Louisiana bayou. The actress lied about her age to be considered for the role and eventually beat out thousands of kids. Her acclaim in this role led to her playing Annie in the Annie remake just a few years later.

12. Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver (1976)

When you’re 12 years old, you probably don’t expect to be playing a prostitute in a movie, but that’s just how Jodie Foster burst into the acting world. In this crime drama, Foster plays Iris, a teenage prostitute who meets the aforementioned taxi driver and their lives become a bit more intertwined than a driver-drivee relationship. Foster earned an Academy Award nomination for her role, as well as numerous other nominations and awards. And now she’s Jodie-freaking-Foster, so she’s done pretty well for herself.

13. Albert Tsai, Trophy Wife (2013-2014)

It’s rare that a child actor on a TV show be anything but annoying AF, but Tsai defied the odds on the short-lived Trophy Wife. As adopted son Bert, he brings refreshing, easy comedy to the show. Up against the comedy vets on the show, like Malin Akerman and Michaela Watkins, Tsai stood out the most as a truly funny, dramatic kid. Unfortunately, the show was canceled after one season, but Tsai’s found plenty of TV work elsewhere and has a hilarious career ahead of him.

14. Sean Astin, The Goonies (1985)

This coming-of-age film is on of Astin’s first-ever roles. He plays optimistic Mikey, a kid on the hunt to save his family home by finding a legendary lost treasure with his friends. Astin was only 14 when he was in the film and now, years later, finds himself working with some other great child actors: the Stranger Things kids. You think he gave them some tips on how to be great child stars?

15. Chloe Grace Moretz, Kick-Ass (2010)

Moretz plays the ruthless vigilante Hit-Girl in this hilarious, and foul-mouthed, action film. Her role was little controversial, considering she says some very mature words a the age of 13. But Moretz recognized on several occasions that she was just acting, always acting mature beyond her years. This film kickstarted her career which has been on an uphill trajectory ever since.

16. Jacob Tremblay, Room (2015)

Tremblay burst onto movie screens in a big way in this heartbreakingly hard-to-watch film. Tremblay plays Jack, a young boy born in a shed to a woman who was kidnapped seven years prior. The film details their struggles in captivity until they finally manage to be saved. Their adjustment to the outside world is harrowing. Jack believes that their life in the shed is the only life theirs is and is shocked and awed by life outside the shed. Tremblay’s performance here is masterful. As a young boy adjusting to life after a trauma that he didn’t fully understand was a trauma, he is exceptional. This kid has a long career ahead of him.

17. Dafne Keen, Logan (2017)

It’s hard to be a standout in a film when you barely speak, but 11-year-old Keen somehow managed to steal the spotlight from Hugh Jackman while saying very little. Keen plays Laura, a mutant very similar to Wolverine with whom she travels with to safety. Keen’s angsty, strange silence through the majority of the film is an asset as her actions and facial expressions speak volumes. She’s intense and scene-stealing in the film, making it much watch for more reasons than Jackman being shirtless.

18. Saoirse Ronan, Atonement (2007)

This emotional film actually got this young star an Academy Award nomination for her role. In it, Ronan plays Briony, a young girl who’s jealous of her sister’s suitor and accuses him of being the man who harassed a girl in their community. Her lie follows her through life and ruins the relationship she has with her sister forever. Ronan’s ability to speak without speaking makes this one of the greatest child actor roles. The thoughtful way in which she acts the guilt and petulance of a young girl is amazing.

19. Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men (2007-2015)

As Sally Draper, daughter of anti-hero Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Shipka was incredible. Her journey from selfish, dramatic child to rebellious, thoughtful teen is how children should grow up on television. Her complicated relationship with both her mom and dad is a touchstone for the show and relatable for anyone who’s battled their parents throughout their youth. She’s been nominated for and won many awards for the role, showing she has a bright future ahead of her.

20. Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things (2016-2017)

The biggest standout performance on one of the biggest shows of the last few years has been from 13-year-old Millie Bobby Brown. The way she plays Eleven, a psychokinetic child who’s been taken from her family and experimented on, is truly a highlight of an already amazing show. Eleven’s adolescence has been stunted, she has limited vocabulary, and literally no touchpoint on how to be a real kid. So when she escapes and meets the rest of the Stranger Things kids, it’s predictably a little awkward. Brown plays Eleven’s intensity, yet quiet confusion about everything, just right. She’s curious but also angry for the things she’s been put through. It’s amazing to watch how much she can do without saying anything: A scream, a tilt of the head, and silent cry — all employed by this amazing young actress.

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