Earlier this month, on an episode of NBC’s “This Is Us,” teenage Tess (Eris Baker) was kissing her non-binary partner when her mother suddenly walked in on them. In the immediate aftermath, Baker achingly conveyed the quiet devastation of Tess’s realization that something had shifted in her relationship with her mother, possibly irrevocably.
In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” Kaylee Hottle is a standout as Jia, a deaf child who’s the only one who can communicate with Kong. The expressions of empathy and resolve that flicker across Hottle’s face register more vividly than the skyscraper-smashing battles between the titular titans.
In “The Life Ahead,” film legend Sophia Loren is frequently upstaged by a charismatic performer more than seven decades her junior: Ibrahima Gueye, as Momo, an orphaned 12-year-old immigrant from Senegal who bonds with the former prostitute played by Loren.
The thing is, these superb performances aren’t outliers. Over the past decade, the talent pool of child and teen actors has grown extraordinarily deep, with a corresponding depth to the roles tackled by young performers.
Have there ever been so many movies and TV shows where kids are able, even expected, to carry a story’s weight? If this isn’t a golden age of child acting, it feels pretty close.
Think of newcomer Shaian Jordan’s remarkable performance, both in terms of acting and singing, as young Aretha Franklin (called “Little Re”) in National Geographic Channel’s new “Genius: Aretha.” Or Millie Bobby Brown’s astonishing turn in Netflix’s “Stranger Things” as Eleven, whose psychokinetic gifts bring her such suffering (and Brown is just one member of an exceptional youth ensemble in the series).
Or Joshua Caleb Johnson as the watchful and resourceful Onion, journeying with abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke), who mistakes him for a girl, in Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird.” Or Isla Johnston as young Beth in “The Queen’s Gambit,” discovering her genius for chess while constructing an enigmatic exterior as a shield against the world’s attempts to define her.
Or Quvenzhané Wallis’s Oscar-nominated performance as Hushpuppy in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012), or Alex Hibbert as Little in “Moonlight” (2016), or Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in the remake of “True Grit” (2010) or . . .
You get the idea. With an aplomb and maturity beyond their years, performers under 18 have been tackling the most challenging, layered material. The richness of the roles available to them has something to do with the greater need for actors at a time when premium cable channels and streaming services are determined to distinguish themselves by creating original scripted series, and something to do with the fact that many film and TV scriptwriters are shunning the artificial constructs of yesteryear and taking a less sentimental view of childhood.
As they map out their plotlines and character arcs, they can do so with an awareness that however high the emotional bar may be, they’re sure to find child and teen actors who can clear it. (A key reason “This Is Us” doesn’t lose narrative momentum as it plunges back and forth in time is that the cast members playing the teen and preteen versions of Pearson siblings Randall, Kate, and Kevin so skillfully evoke the adult selves of the Big Three.)
Meanwhile, we in the audience now don’t think twice about seeing young performers shouldering much of the burden in works of gritty realism or wrenching psychodrama — or seeing the characters they play evolve over time.
With long-running TV series, there’s something of a domino effect at work. The more young actors prove they can do, the more they are asked to do. For instance, the creators of AMC’s “Mad Men” (2007-15) clearly recognized the talents of Kiernan Shipka, who played Don Draper’s young daughter, Sally. By the time “Mad Men” ended its run, Sally’s psyche had grown nearly as tangled and conflicted as that of her dad.
Initially a minor character on “This Is Us,” Tess became more of a factor in the show’s ongoing family saga after she came out to her parents. “I was pretty young, I was 11 or 12, when they asked if it would be OK for Tess to be gay on the show,” Baker, who is now 15, told People magazine this month, referring to the “This Is Us” writers. “I said yes immediately because I think representation is so important.”
“I had conversations with my parents, conversations with friends who came out to me, and had a diary,” she added. “I wrote as Tess in my diary and the thoughts that she would be having when she came out: fear, worry, and if she was going to be accepted.”
Clearly, we’re a long way from the cloying falsity of “Full House” and “The Brady Bunch” or the sunny superficiality of “Leave It to Beaver,” to say nothing of the toothache-inducing saccharine in 1930s Shirley Temple movies.
And we’re equally far from the faux sophistication of “Dawson’s Creek” (1998-2003), in which alleged teenagers talked like exceptionally jaded 35-year-olds, or from countless sitcoms where child or teen actors existed mainly to spout snarky or cutesy one-liners. Kids onscreen today are more likely to think like, talk like, act like, and actually be kids.
They’re also more likely to have their own story lines, not just in dramas but in comedies like ABC’s “Modern Family” and “black-ish.”
“Modern Family” (2009-20) eventually ran out of gas as the kids in the cast grew older, but during its peak years their talents inspired the show’s writers to build many story lines around them. Consequently, the series lived up to its title rather than being wholly parent-centric like, for instance, “Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996-2005).The picture has been similar at ABC’s “black-ish,” where the child actors — especially Marsai Martin, as Diane — are so deft that the series doesn’t miss a stride when an episode is built around them.
Young performers like these might have stronger grounds for optimism that they can actually sustain a career beyond childhood and adolescence. While the history of child stars is filled with the names of those who were unable to make the transition, today encouragement can be found in the thriving likes of Diane Lane, Christian Bale, Jodie Foster, Jennifer Connelly, and Anna Paquin, all of whom began their careers when they were kids.
For viewers of a certain age, the child-acting boom can create cognitive dissonance. It seems like only yesterday that Elle Fanning was debuting as 2-year-old Lucy in “I Am Sam’' (2001); now she’s starring in Hulu’s rowdy “The Great,” as 18th-century Russian empress Catherine the Great. The talents of young Evan Rachel Wood were plainly evident to fans of the family drama “Once and Again” (1999-2002); today Wood stars in HBO’s endlessly complicated “Westworld.”
Of course it’s not as if there haven’t been plenty of memorable performances from child and teen actors preceding the current boom. Who can forget the anguish of young Jackie Coogan as he begs not to be separated from Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in “The Kid” (1921) or the heart-rending sight of dauntless little Enzo Staiola traipsing behind his father through the streets of Rome in Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” (1948)? Who doesn’t smile at the memory of tiny Drew Barrymore coming face-to-wizened-face with the extraterrestrial in “E.T.” (1982) for the first time, prompting both of them to let out sustained shrieks?
A list of other young standouts would include but by no means be limited to Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense” (1999), Fred Savage in “The Wonder Years” (1988-93), Raven-Symoné in “That’s So Raven” (2003-07), Neil Patrick Harris in “Doogie Howser, M.D.” (1989-93), Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon” (1973), Gary Coleman in “Diff’rent Strokes” (1978-86), Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone” (1990), Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” (1973) — and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet” (1944) and Natalie Wood in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947).
Often, though, young characters have served primarily as a vehicle to illustrate the adult protagonist’s personal growth, as with 6-year-old Billy (Justin Henry) teaching Dustin Hoffman how to be a real father in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), or to flesh out the adult protagonist’s overall profile, as Opie (Ron Howard) did in “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-68). What feels different today is the greater degree of autonomy granted to young characters and the actors who play them.
That coincides with, and is doubtless prompted by, the reality that a high level of skill is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. Performers like Baker, Hottle, Gueye, and the rest certainly can’t be considered the junior varsity, and the prominence of young actors like them is likely to grow, given how amply populated the entertainment landscape now is with examples of successful child and teen actors — and given that the unspoken motto of their industry is “Follow the leader.’'
An old rule of show business that was spoken, supposedly by W.C. Fields, has it that actors should “Never work with animals or children.” If Fields were adhering to that stance these days, he wouldn’t get much work — and definitely not in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”