The wise-beyond-their-years youngsters are earning their seat at the adults' table at this weekend's box office.
Critically acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild began its highly touted run Wednesday, riding on the stunning performance of Quvenzhané Wallis — who was all of 6 during filming. DreamWorks' People Like Us, opening Friday, features 12-year-old Michael Hall D'Addario in a pivotal role alongside Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks.
And in the Australian movie Last Ride (on video-on-demand Friday and opening in New York July 6), 10-year-old Tom Russell carries the film with veteran Hugo Weaving.
The results are serious and impressive in ways that go far beyond the stereotypical "adorable" child-actor role, says film critic Roger Ebert. "I don't know why, but the right child actor in the right role can have an effect more realistic and natural than most adults. Does their young age access a purity of feeling that bypasses technique?"
People Like Us director/writer Alex Kurtzman would answer yes to that about D'Addario's performance as a sensitive, troubled kid growing up with a single mother (Banks).
D'Addario was so spot-on for the part that Kurtzman incorporated the actor's long hair and apparel (from hoodies to his yellow Converse sneakers) into the role. In a key scene when D'Addario gets yelled at by his flawed role model (Pine), Kurtzman simply captured the young actor's poignant natural reflex.
"Chris really brought the volume, and (D'Addario's) surprise was very real. You can't coach that," Kurtzman says. "When you see a performance from a child in a movie that you remember forever, it's because there was something so authentic about them."
Finding that naturalness in front of the camera is not easy. The filmmakers of Beasts saw more than 4,000 kids for the part of Hushpuppy — a girl learning to survive on her own in a tough, fictional bayou community. But Wallis, who had no professional acting experience, showed such natural wisdom and innate acting ability that she earned the role.
"We wanted to put across the idea that maybe this 6-year-old understands the world better than the adults," says director Benh Zeitlin. "You needed someone who was truly wise. And not just cute-wise. (Wallis) is that person."
Beyond this weekend, newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward have wowed the indie box office this spring. In Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (in its fifth week of rolling release), they play 12-year-olds who run away together.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green (Aug. 15) features 12-year-old Cameron "CJ" Adams as the dreamed-for son of Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton.
Green director Peter Hedges says his young star was so intent on being authentic that he politely asked for another take for a town hall scene filled with 500 extras.
"He said, 'Mr. Peter, can I do another take? That one didn't seem real to me,' " Hedges recalls. "Everyone just melted. He's a pretty exceptional kid."