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The directness and clarity of a young generation

Among this year's stellar performances by younger actors are Dakota Fanning (left) in "Hounddog" and a trio of young actors who portray the growth of an orphaned slum child in "Slumdog Millionaire."

By Roger Ebert

Sometimes I realize something, and it astonishes and delights me. I was admiring the key performance of a young aboriginal boy named Brandon Walters in the new film "Australia," and I got to thinking about how child actors can sometimes embody a directness and clarity that is beyond the reach of even the best adult actors, because it never seems premeditated. It seems as if it's being filmed as it happens.

I know that isn't the case. I know they get coaching and direction, and I don't believe they make their impressions without hard work. But maybe they free up under the camera, or maybe a character for them has the same mesmerizing reality as the cowboys we once played while walking home from the Saturday matinee.I came home and kept on thinking about Brandon Walters, and I looked over the titles of the 190 or so films I've reviewed so far in 2008. Then I started making a list. There have been 20 films with the lead or a very important character played by an actor between the ages of about 4 and 16.

I may have missed one or two. Every one of those performances was exceptional. Every one came effortlessly to memory. Every one in one way or another made the film possible.The best young performances of the year were in Ramin Bahrani's "Chop Shop," by a 12-year-old boy named Alejandro Polanco and a 16-year-old girl named Isamar Gonzales. They share a tiny room above a shabby shop in a Queens auto-repair ghetto in the shadow of Shea Stadium. This is great filmmaking, and great acting on the run as the two improvise a living where none is to be found.

The work of 12-year-old Dillon Freasier as the son of Daniel Day-Lewis was crucial to Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood." The character is cruelly lied to and crudely behaved toward, and somehow finds the reserves to carry on. A lesser actor might not have been able to stand up to Day-Lewis' power.

Fans are lining up around the block for "Twilight," all unaware of a far superior Danish film about even younger vampires, Tomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In" (which is already No. 115 on IMDb's 250 best films list). Kare Hedebrant is a boy of 12, befriended by a girl vampire (Lina Leandersson) who has been about his age "for a very long time." The film considers vampirism as if it were real, and dreadful, and a test for the good natures of both characters. No letting the audience off easy. This vampire isn't a vegetarian.

Asa Butterfield plays the 8-year-old hero of Mark Herman's "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," as the son of a Nazi commandant who runs a facility his child doesn't understand. Jack Scanlon, about the same age, is a prisoner in the facility. Neither child is quite able to comprehend the horror they see, and they rely on friendship to comfort them. Neither gives a hint of realization, and that is crucial.

Charlie McDermott, about 16, plays the son of a desperate mother in "Frozen River." Meals in their house trailer consist of microwave popcorn and Tang, after the cereal runs out. He cares for his little brother, he wants to help his mother, he does what he can while she resorts to human trafficking: bringing Chinese across the Canadian border to the United States by driving a car across the ice. He is precisely right.

Now consider James (JimMyron Ross), the 12-year-old boy in Lance Hammer's "Ballast." He lives with his mother next door to his uncle. The adults are not speaking after the death for his father. Hungry for attention, he tries to find it in the wrong way, and his need slowly opens up his depressed uncle. All of the lead performers in this wonderful film set in the Mississippi Delta are making their acting debuts, but you would never, ever guess that. James is the moving part in a situation otherwise mired down by old wounds.

Catinca Untaru, then 8, plays the little girl in Tarsem's visual masterpiece "The Fall," and is told legends by a wounded soldier which she translates into her own fantasies. She embodies a purity, a naiveté and an affectlessness beyond description. You can't understand why she is so perfect. Then you discover that she didn't even speak English and is speaking after phonetic coaching. Her impact transcends language.

Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" centers entirely on the growth of an orphaned slum child from scavenging on a garbage heap to becoming a finalist on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Three different actors play the boy at various ages, all of them convincingly bright, resilient, vulnerable, tough. The movie is his story, and they make it so.

Dakota Fanning, just turned 14, started acting on TV in 2000, and became a film star after "I Am Sam" (2001), second billed opposite Sean Penn. He was a mentally disabled man fighting for the custody of his 7-year-old daughter. Think about that for a movie debut. This year, she had two roles observing the gradual onset of adolescence. In "Hounddog," she is the daughter of a layabout dad, and is raped by a local boy. In "The Secret Life of Bees," she helps her nanny and only friend escape from her abusive father, and finds them shelter in a household ruled by Queen Latifah. Fanning is gifted, professional, sensible, on the right track to become another Jodie Foster.

That's 11 films, counting two for Fanning. Space prevents describing another nine, with no less assured performances by young actors. Alphabetically, they are "Changeling," "Fugitive Pieces," "Gran Torino," "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," "Miracle at St. Anna," "Sixty Six," "Swing Vote," "Henry Poole is Here," "Towelhead" and "XXY."

Remembering these performances, I think there should be a special Oscar category for young actors. I pictured two or three of them making their acceptance speeches, and that was pleasant, but then I realized what a terrible idea I'd had. We should preserve for them the pleasure of performance, instead of encouraging them to think about Oscars. That could inspire Oscar campaigns and competition and all the rest of it, and wreak upon their lives a horror like modern Little League. It would be like telling them there is a Santa Claus, after all.

Where does the magic come from? How do directors and casting directors make these discoveries? What instinct inspires directors to bet their entire film on an untried and inexperienced child? What would happen if an adult actor could somehow still channel that clarity and affectless truth? Can we think of one who does? Some come very close, and indeed in many cases such notes are not required in a performance.

If I knew the answer to these questions, I would be much wiser than I am. For the present, all I can do is express my gratitude.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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