Below are 10 great performances from well-known child stars. The catch: all of these roles were the first time the already-famous actors appeared in an R-rated film. If an R-rated movie was a child actor’s first role (think Natalie Portman, The Professional or Johnny Depp, A Nightmare on Elm Street) then they weren’t considered. This list is about youthful stars who branched out superbly into more risqué material.
Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy is a southern white trash clusterfuck of sexuality, violence and paranoia. It was far from a perfect film, but it never pretended to be a perfect film. Casting Zac Efron as the lead was a risk. Up until this film, Efron’s on and off screen persona was as a good old boy – well mannered and humble. His Paperboy role was a gamble, and in my eyes, one that paid off rather well.
9. Selena Gomez – Spring Breakers (2013)
I’ve always appreciated Gomez’s work in Spring Breakers, but I fell absolutely in love with it a few weeks ago while I watched the DVD’s special features. In the making-of doc, Gomez admits that she was very nervous that her role as Faith would upset her loyal fan base of young women. Her anxiety caused her to have a meltdown on set, but instead of giving up, she stuck with it. Director Harmony Korine became aware of Gomez’s insecurity, and he let it motivate her performance. So, in a lot of ways, Gomez really is Faith, and that certainly works for me.
8. Shailene Woodley – The Descendants (2011)
I had never heard of Shailene Woodley before she played George Clooney’s angry daughter in The Descendants. But missing her work on The O.C. and The Secret Life of the American Teenager didn’t really matter, as she was utterly breathtaking in The Descendants. Her character, Alexandra, is a perfect embodiment of teenage angst. The partying, the insecurity, the parental distaste – Alexandra was a girl who thought she had it all figured out, and it was profoundly moving to watch her realize she didn’t.
7. Ellen Page – Hard Candy (2005)
Page’s Hayley Stark had me fooled in every single scene of Hard Candy. I adored her one minute, then detested her the next. I wanted her to win, then I wanted to see her defeated. I never knew what to expect or how she’d ultimately turn out, and that is thanks much in part to Page’s skilled work. I love how she used her innocent, petite figure as a means of seduction, before turning into a remarkable badass.
6. Sean Penn – Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
What’s not to love about Jeff Spicoli? As the forever stoned, carefree dude of Ridgemont High, Penn delivered as iconic a performance as he ever has, which, considering he’s never played any character like this since, is a truly incredible feat. Jeff Spicoli is a comic staple of American cinema, you can’t not love him.
5. Emma Watson – The Bling Ring (2013)
First off, yes, I know that technically Watson’s role in This Is the End marks her first appearance in an R-rated film, but Top 10 First R-Rated Performances by Child Actors (Not Including Glorified Cameos) was too long of a title. So, back to The Bling Ring. As I mentioned in my intro, there’s nothing about Watson’s work in this film that I wasn’t utterly taken with. She played an elitist teen void of tearful monologues, anguished screaming matches, or raging domestic battles. Nicki is so self obsessed, it’s almost as if she isn’t even there. This performance is the work of a very skilled professional, and it’s only the beginning. (Note: It has been brought to my attention that Watson’s first, actual, technical appearance in an R-rated film was her brief turn in My Week With Marilyn. I have no excuse for my oversight other than temporary memory lapse and cinematic apathy. So basically, Watson’s role in The Bling Ring shouldn’t be included on this list. But I’m leaving it anyway. So there.)
4. River Phoenix – Stand By Me (1986)
My best friend growing up was a lot like Phoenix’s Chris Chambers from Stand By Me. Impulsive yet thoughtful, dangerous yet determined – hell, they were even both named Chris. I was Gordie, the sympathetic observer, and Chris was Chris, the passionate fighter. He stood up for the little guy, social alliances be damned. I swear, watching Stand By Me is like watching a portion of my childhood on screen. I suppose that’s why I’m still so drawn to the film, and Phoenix’s flawless performance in it.
3. Ryan Gosling – The Believer (2001)
Danny Balint is the worst kind of anti-Semite. He’s self-loathing, angry, and, most importantly, secretly Jewish. Watching a very young Ryan Gosling spew Nazi rhetoric is terrifying, but the scenes later in the film, when Danny develops a sense of compassion, are the ones that truly show Gosling’s strength as an actor. By 2001, Gosling was well known for various child-friendly films and television series, and The Believer marked a turn. A turn that is still gloriously revealing itself to us.
2. Evan Rachel Wood – Thirteen (2003)
Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen is one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen. It so accurately shows the sudden decay of youth; how a cocktail of substance, influence and angst can make for a teenage monster. Just writing about this movie sends chills down my spine, for I am reminded of its final scene. Evan Rachel Wood being held by Holly Hunter on the kitchen floor. Crying, begging, pleading. Will everything be all right? No, probably not anytime soon. But hopefully, maybe, someday.
1. Jodie Foster – Taxi Driver (1976)
What I’m drawn to most in child acting is self-assuredness. The tricky part is, if a kid acts too confident, then it can come off as cocky, which rarely lends itself to good results. Noting all that, Foster’s role as teenage prostitute Iris in Taxi Driver may be the most self-assured film acting I’ve ever seen from a child. Iris is confident, while not having a clue. She’s street smart, while being completely brainwashed.
It’s funny, when you look at how many roles Foster had prior to 1976, it is more than double the amount Robert De Niro had. So, in a very loose way, it’s as if they were both creatively young. And watching Travis Bickle lecture Iris about the realities of life (when he could damn sure use a lecture himself), makes for one of the film’s best moments. Perhaps the best way to encapsulate Foster’s work in Taxi Driver is to say that she created a young woman worth fighting for. We don’t have to agree with her life choices, but we, like Travis, can sympathize with her situation. I love Beatrice Straight in Network, but as far as I’m concerned, that was Jodie Foster’s Oscar.
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