TOP 5 MOST UNDERRATED CHILD PERFORMANCES

Q’orianka Kilcher The New World

Q’orianka Kilcher in The New World

Yes, another Malick film. The New World was actually the first Malick film I ever watched. Funnily enough, I saw the trailer in the previews for The Wedding Crashers, which I also loved, but I made a mental note to watch this film very soon. However, on my first viewing, I hated it. I hated it in a weird way. It seemed to me at first long, self-indulgent, and poorly written, but for all its foibles it was terribly pretty to look at. So the next time it came on–yep, you guessed it–HBO, I watched it and found myself gradually falling in love. The music was beautifully haunting. The camera couldn’t seem to make one false move. And the acting was spot on by every player, most notably Christian Bale and Q’orianka Kilcher.

The narration was initially jarring because it was neither used nor carried out traditionally. Typically, directors will opt for voiceovers for one of two reasons: Either their film was based on a much-beloved book or they are too lazy to show and decide to tell instead. Sometimes narration works, but more often than not it doesn’t. Good directors as well as bad directors rely on it, and even if it’s not awful, it’s almost always redundant. Generally, it’s supposed to provide background or give insight into the character’s state of mind. Malick takes the latter quite literally. Rather than have his characters explain themselves, he gives the audience a doorway into their mind. So instead of “It’s safe to say I liked Andy Dufresne from the start,” Malick gives us “Mother…now I know where you live…” We don’t always think in complete sentences, and we don’t always think in a linear way. And this became one of the reasons that I love Malick. He doesn’t treat his audience like first-graders who need everything explained to them in simplest terms.  He allows art to take precedence, and that’s probably why the narrative is my second favorite part of a Malick film–next to the visual poetry that man creates.

Now, about Kilcher. Like Jack, Kilcher as Pocahontas does not say much. This is understandable given the fact that she’s learning English throughout the first half of the film. Kilcher herself was fourteen when she filmed this, just a little older than the real Pocahontas was when she met John Smith. Spoiler-alert: The New World follows the traditional, unsubstantiated love story route. Kilcher and Farrell frolick in the woods, eyeing each other affectionately from afar, and so on and so on. The whole while, her performance is just mesmerizing. The camera loves her, and there’s something perfectly poetic about the way she saunters through the film, with an air of someone touched by the beauty of everything.

But what I love is the moment Bale comes on screen. The first half of the film, Kilcher is basically reduced to fulfilling the typical Pocahontas role: That of a young girl infatuated with an older, attractive man. While Kilcher plays it beautifully, her character is finally given some depth when she’s thrust into a new role: the wife of John Rolfe (Bale). The real Pochontas’s feelings about the marriage remain unknown, but she did have a child with tobacco farmer Rolfe. In Malick’s film, Pocahontas is still in love with John Smith and even though she likes Rolfe, she wonders whether she will ever “love” him like she loves Smith.

“He is like a tree. He shelters me. I lie in his shade,” whispers Kilcher in a haunting voiceover.

A conflicted young girl becomes a woman in these scenes, settling into married life and doting on her baby son. Here is where Kilcher is truly given a chance to shine, and the final five minutes of her performance (and indeed the film itself) are a thing of beauty.

TYLER HOECHLIN Road to Perdition

Here is another example of voiceover narration which oddly works, mainly because it only serves as the framework for the story. Admittedly, Hoechlin’s performance is not on quite the same par as the aforementioned performances.  He does a good job, and he is helped tremenduously by the direction of Sam Mendes. On the other hand, he is sometimes hindered by the script. But for the most part, he turns in a pretty solid performance alongside Tom  Hanks.

Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, and Liam Aiken in Road to Perdition

Hoechlin plays Michael Sullivan Jr., the son of a hitman (Hanks), who discovers his father’s less than upstanding occupation late one rainy night, and pays dearly for his curiosity. His brother and mother are subsequently murdered by his father’s colleague, and father and son are forced on the run. Hoechlin’s character is meant to be guilt-ridden and angry, which is palpable in his performance. He’s also a kid who does not know his father.  Road to Perdition in this way becomes part-Tragedy, part-Coming-of-Age, part-love story. Michael and his father finally understand each other, and though they have always loved each other, that love becomes even stronger. My favorite part of Hoechlin’s performance comes at the end of the film (which I won’t give away). He manages to be heartbreaking and a minute later–with a powerful voiceover–uplifting.

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TOP 5 MOST UNDERRATED CHILD PERFORMANCES

JURNEE SMOLLETT Eve’s Bayou

Okay. I know I talk about Eve’s Bayou a lot, but that’s only because it is a truly phenomenal example of filmmaking that has stuck with me for well over a decade. I first watched this film on HBO when I was about eight or nine years old. It was Rated R and I knew better than to ask my mom to purchase  a film that featured sex, drugs, and murder, not to mention incest. After that first viewing, I caught it on television two or three times over the next few years. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I was finally able to purchase the DVD, which, by the way, was not exactly easy to find. I literally called every video place in Columbia until I managed to find it at this small independent shop in the mall. A little over the top? Maybe. But more than anything my determination was a testament to what a profound effect this film had  had on me, even though I hadn’t seen it in years.

One of the main reasons Eve’s Bayou is stuck high in my Top 10 Favorite Movies of All Time is the emotionally raw performance by Jurnee Smollett. I wholeheartedly believe that I was able to love and connect with this very adult story at such a young age because of her. More than I saw myself in her, I knew her.

Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou

Grown-up Eve’s narration frames the story, but we process the film through the eyes of ten-year-old Eve; and the eyes are very important. Eve is gifted with “The Sight” or clairvoyance, like her Aunt Mozelle, but she is no melancholy, wise-beyond-her-years Haley Joel Osment balking at her supernatural ability. Eve is first and foremost a girl like any other; a girl who sees her father making love to a woman who is not her mother; a girl who sees his preference for her older sister, sees her mother’s depression, sees her aunt’s tragic loneliness. The film becomes an exploration of what such a world looks like to a child. It would not have worked if Smollett had brought an ounce of pretentiousness or precociousness to her performance. Fortunately, Eve’s Bayou succeeds firmly in the hands of it’s young star who emotes like a pro.

MATT O’LEARY Frailty

This is another film that has stuck with me over the years, but for very different reasons. Frailty is not the kind of story you relate to; it’s the kind of story that creeps the hell out of you. Even though most of the violence takes place off screen, the movie still manages to drive the point home in a very unsettling manner. I discovered this film largely thanks, once again, to HBO. Either it had just been released onto video and Pay-Per-View was restlessly advertising its new addition, or I saw the trailer on TV Guide. Whatever the case, I didn’t initially want to see it. It was obviously a horror film; even today I remember being appropriately creeped out by that chilling shot of Matt O’Leary‘s face disappearing in the darkness as his father says, “Only demons should fear me. You’re not a demon, are you?”

Which brings me to Matt O’Leary. This guy is one of the most underrated, underused, unrecognized young actors working today. Sure, he’s appeared in some duds like Sorority Row, but he is at his best in off-beat, thought-provoking indies like American Son and Natural Selection (he’s at it again in the sure to be awesome Fat Kid Rules the World, hopefully released later this year). I mean, kid consistently turns in critically acclaimed performances, but few people know about him and he doesn’t work nearly as often as he should.  He is passed over instead for decidedly mediocre acts like Robert Pattinson and Zac Efron. This is the world we live in.

Matt O’Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, and Bill Paxton in Frailty

Anyway, I first noticed him in Frailty. Having nothing to do and it being the middle of theday (I had hours before I had to go to sleep), I decided to give the film a chance when I watched it On Demand one afternoon at my aunt’s house. I was not disappointed. Thankfully, it was more family drama than horror film. When a man claims to have received a vision from God, telling him to take out the “demons” in their small Texas town, one son (Jeremy Sumpter) accepts his word without question while the other (O’Leary) becomes increasingly disturbed.

Once again, without a solid performance from actor O’Leary, the film would have failed. He turns in a performance that is all at once sympathetic, heartfelt, vulnerable, vaguely sinister, and multi-layered. He had to be about twelve or thirteen when he filmed this, and I always wonder how much of it was deliberate.

If you are a sane audience member, you will most likely side with O’Leary’s character who believes that his father is a whackjob. However, if you ever get a chance to pick up the DVD, the screenwriter offers an entirely different and interesting perspective that will make you think twice about who is supposed to be the hero of this story.

HUNTER MCCRACKEN The Tree of Life

It came as no surprise to me that Terrence Malick‘s latest effort turned out to be one of the most polarizing films of the year, if not the decade. With The Tree of Life, you either hate it or love it. As a Malick fan, and as fan of unconventional films in general, I loved it. In another post a while back, I criticized Malick’s writing. Well, I take it all back. Obviously he’s not a bad writer. It’s just that he rarely gives his characters more to express than poetic musings. But I can’t expect him to be like every other filmmaker out there. That’s why I love him. I love that he allows the audience to peer inside his characters’ heads. I love that he lingers on the details. I love that he is in no hurry to get to the next plot device. Malick’s brand of filmmaking reminds me of the John Keats quote in Bright Star when he is explaining the “point” of poetry:

“The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is a experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.”

This is Malick all the way. But this may also be part of the reason The Tree of Life was received poorly by at least half its audience, because in this Avatar-era of filmmaking, we are used to having our messages spelled out for us. Malick chose to do an ambitious film largely about life: growing up, family relationships, faith, and death. He offers little in the way of explanation, because how could he? Life is not exactly a 2 + 3 = 5 situation.

Laramie Eppler, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life

All that said, one thing most critics could agree  upon is the stunning performance by Hunter McCracken, who plays young Jack. Once again, the success of the film rests firmly in his hands, and he rises brilliantly to the occasion. What I find most impressive is that McCracken really doesn’t say much. Dialogue does not seem to be Malick’s forte, which is what I was hinting at before. No matter; we get plenty of insight into Jack’s head through his Southern-coated, pain-laden voiceovers, aching for answers he never seems to get. McCracken wanders, often stoically, through the film. You might never guess how he felt about anything unless you look into his eyes. Therein lies the true beauty of his performance. We can see in his eyes that Jack wants to love his father, does love his father, but hates him sometimes, too. We see in his eyes that he longs to be good like his brother R. L. and his mother–both characters the embodiment of Grace–and we see his frustration at the jealousy–the Nature in him–that he is desperate to suppress.  All this McCracken manages to convey beautifully, with a subtlety and–yes–grace some seasoned actors have yet to pull off.

Special mention should also go to Laramie Eppler who plays R. L. If Jack is the guiding light of the film, R. L. is certainly the heart; and Eppler plays him with an unassuming, heartbreaking tenderness. Not to mention, he looks extraordinarily like Brad Pitt who plays Father/Mr. O’Brien.

TO BE CONTINUED…