Some of the greatest film performances of all time have come from young stars. Over the years, plenty of child actors, from Jodie Foster to Dakota Fanning, have proven that age and experience don’t necessarily dictate talent. With these memorable roles, these kids not only earned critical acclaim, but also showed that they have acting chops on par with some of Hollywood’s finest.
To celebrate the release of The Fits on DVD March 20, we take a look at some of the best child acting debuts, including Royalty Hightower’s stunning performance in The Fits.
JODIE FOSTER – TAXI DRIVER
At the age of 14, Foster was already an acting vet, having appeared on several television shows and a handful of feature films. But her true breakthrough role came in 1976’s neo-noir crime drama, Taxi Driver. Her performance as a 12-year-old child prostitute named Iris was not only hauntingly and disturbingly believable; it also proved that Foster could hold her own among Hollywood heavyweights like Robert DeNiro, even at such a young age. The role earned Foster her first ever Oscar nomination in the category of Best Supporting Actress, and the film continues to be widely cited by critics, directors, and viewers as one of the greatest films of all time.
MACAULAY CULKIN — HOME ALONE
With his now famous wide-eyed, open-mouthed, stunned expression, Culkin managed to give us one of the most iconic kid performances of all time. As the left behind Kevin, Culkin is charming, spirited, and funny, making audiences root for him from the moment he pats aftershave onto his smooth, prepubescent baby face. Thanks to his charismatic portrayal, Culkin helped turn the movie into an instant classic full of quotable, timeless moments. He later reprised the role in the 1992 sequel, Home Alone: Lost in New York.
NATALIE PORTMAN – LEON
The 1994 French action crime thriller, directed by Luc Besson, marked Portman’s film debut. The actress took on the complex role of Mathilda, the tough talking 13-year-old whose family is murdered and is then taken in by assassin Leon. As Mathilda, Portman was both fascinatingly realistic and amazingly emotional, wrestling with sadness, humor and a need for revenge. Critics called the performance a “striking debut” and a “breakout turn” for the young Portman, who has only continued to garner critical acclaim throughout her career since.
DAKOTA FANNING – I AM SAM
Fanning has long since been wowing audiences, but many call her role in this 2001 drama her first true breakthrough. The actress, who was only 7 years old at the time of filming, played the inquisitive young daughter of Sean Penn’s disabled character, Sam Dawson. In the role, Fanning is both endearing and heartbreaking and it’s impossible not be reduced to ears watching her and Penn capture the story of an incredibly special father/daughter relationship. Her staggering performance earned Fanning a slew of awards and a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role.
ABIGAIL BRESLIN — LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
Breslin earned an Oscar nod in the Best Supporting Actress category for her role in this 2006 comedy drama, which garnered widespread critical acclaim. As the young beauty pageant contestant Olive Hoover, Breslin was spunky, endearing and completely irrestible. Critics widely credited her performance for bringing the highly praised for movie to a new level. As USA Today put it at the time, “If Olive had been played by any other little girl, she would not have affected us as mightily as it did.”
ROYALTY HIGHTOWER – THE FITS
An 11-year-old Q-Kidz dance member, with no acting experience at the time of filming, Hightower blew critics and moviegoers away with her performance as Toni, the fierce anti-conformity young protagonist in the 2015 coming of age tale. The captivating portrayal earned the young actress overwhelming critical acclaim, with The Guardian labeling it “truly bewitching.” Meanwhile, The New York Times praised the newcomer for her “commanding and quietly forceful presence” in the film.
The Fits is out on DVD now.