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…