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The Kids Are Definitely All Right: 12 of the Coolest Young Movie Characters on Film

Updated on March 25, 2019
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Heather has a Bachelor's Degree in English from Moravian College and has been freelance writing for more than 15 years.

What makes a movie truly memorable? That question can be boiled down to two simple answers: a good story and even better performances. Without decent acting, a stellar script can get lost in translation. What would True Grit have been without John Wayne? Or James Bond with someone other than Sean Connery? (Okay, scratch that last one. Other actors have done so, but you get the picture.) Without the actors telling the story, a movie is just words on a page waiting to be spoken. With that sentiment in mind, some praise should be focused on the often overlooked young stars in films that don’t always get their due or get it far too early before they’ve truly matured to understand their emotional ranges.

There are some exceptions that just defied their age group and wowed audiences from the start, such as Drew Barrymore and Dakota Fanning. Sadly, some child stars don’t make that transition too well and end up casualties of a bygone decade like the two Coreys from the 80’s. What remains are their iconic performances even after they’ve grown up or simply died before their time. Here is a list of twelve film performances from Hollywood’s most memorable young actors and actresses. Read on to decide for yourself which films are your favorites and which ones have been overlooked.

Fish Out of Water
(Corey Haim) The Lost Boys 1987-

On the surface, Haim's Sam appeared to be way out of his element. He moved to a town that was controlled by a group of teenage vampire determined into making his older brother Michael (Jason Patric) one too. What’s a kid to do when no one believes his story? He heads to a comic book store and meets an aspiring vampire slayer in fellow teen star Corey Feldman. Together they hatched a plan to rid the town of vampires once and for all. What made Haim’s performance memorable was that, despite Sam’s bratty attitude towards his brother, he would do anything to save him. Even if that meant putting his life in danger, so be it. The movie also showcased the off-camera rapport between Haim and Feldman that lasted through multiple movies, addiction issues, and a reality show. The two Coreys were a byproduct of the 80s that continued to keep giving even after their fame waned, and Haim's unexpected death in 2010.

Elliott (Henry Thomas) E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial 1982-

Many people tend to focus on Drew Barrymore’s first trip onto the big screen as Elliott’s adorable little sister, but the main reason to watch the film is because of Thomas’ portrayal of Elliott. He made his character rapidly grow up on film as he bonded with E.T. beyond all sense of logic. The movie worked because some friendships or relationships tended to defy space, time and logic. Thomas' fear and curiosity was demonstrated as Elliott grew closer to a creature he had no understanding off, except that he wanted to go home. The audience felt for Elliott when the government went after E.T. and cheered when the two fast friends made their escape. Even though Thomas’ career has waned over the years, he’ll forever be known as the boy who was friends with E.T. and it’s that alright because the film has definitely stood the test of time.

Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) The Secret Garden 1993-

An orphaned girl is forced to move to an English mansion that suffered multiple tragedies which left the family in ruins. An emotionally distant father and a bed ridden son forced to spend his days in his room. All it takes to resurrect the household is the lively imagination of Mary Lennox and a hidden garden that hadn’t been taken care of in years. Maberly gave Mary a mixture of whimsy and vulnerability as she tried to reunite her cousin with his father, while feeling sad for the loss of her own parents. The movie was more about the three characters dealing with their own grief that was explained through rebuilding the garden. Garden’s story used the titular garden as a great metaphor and a good film for mothers to watch with their daughters. The movie will help them bond with their children and maybe allow them both to go outside afterwards.

First Love Blooms
Dani Trant
(Reese Witherspoon) The Man in the Moon 1991-

Witherspoon’s debut film as a young Southern girl forced to always be two steps behind her older sister in everything: clothes and even boys. Dani’s luck changes when she meets neighbor boy Court (Jason London) and developed her first crush on a boy. Through Court, Dani learns the true meaning of love and loss. Of course, this crush put her at odds with her older, but it was also this mutual connection to Court that brought them together in the end. Dani evolved into a mature young woman who ended up putting her sister’s feelings ahead of her own when she needed her the most. The film’s most memorable scene was when Dani and her father (Sam Waterston) have their first heart-to-heart after visiting her mother in the hospital. The audience couldn’t help but cry when Waterston embraced Witherspoon with no words being said. It's also through Dani's relationship with her family that allows her to grow up and heal once the dust settles from her recent loss.

Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky) My Girl 1991-

Even though it focused around young Vada dealing with her father growing closer to another woman (Jamie Lee Curtis), Girl’s main storyline point was really the relationship between Vada and her friend Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin). She has her childhood adventures with him and they even share a kiss. Chlumsky and Culkin had an innocent rapport that was just sweet to watch as it unfolded. Unfortunately, this relationship also taught Vada the meaning of loving someone and losing them just the same. Although the relationship was brief, it’ll impact her and the audience for years to come.

Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) Super 8 2011-

Super 8 is basically an unofficial update for E.T. because it involved similar plot elements: aliens and a boy growing up. The real reason to see Super 8 is for the cute chemistry between Courtney and Elle Fanning as kids destined to become a couple when the time is right. That’s what summer is about: the embodiment of innocence and not special effects.

Adventure Seekers

Collin Fenwick (Edward Furlong) The Grass Harp 1995-

Okay, this film might be considered an unlikely choice because its main draw was the big name cast that included Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, but it does when you focus on the character of Collin. He moved into his aunts’ house after both of his parents died and is transformed by the imagination of his Aunt Dolly (Piper Laurie). Young Collin gladly followed her when it came to making her herbal remedy and lived in a tree house within after they ran away from her controlling sister (Sissy Spacek). Harp may have suffered greatly in storyline pacing and wandered a little with one too many subplots, but the movie’s real driving force is the bond between Collin and Dolly. The audience truly believed that Furlong’s Collin loved Laurie’s earthy Dolly and felt sad when that bond was severed way too soon.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 2001-

What viewing experience wouldn’t be complete without Harry Potter. He was the young boy who survived unspeakable horror when his parents were killed and was groomed to fight it again when he grew up once he understood what he was truly capable. A lesson to everyone who think they can’t handle another school or a bad work day. Radcliffe designed Harry at first to be a boy wanting to be accepted and turned him into a young man fearlessly confronting the unknown, because he had people who cared about him. A lesson to learn for everyone: life isn’t worth living without the right amount of support from other people.

Charlie (Freddie Highmore) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 2005-

Highmore made his Charlie the eternal optimist, even though his family was extremely poor. He always looked for the light at the end of the tunnel, which led him to a fateful adventure at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Highmore used Charlie’s innocence and positive outlook that allowed him to win the ultimate prize that waited for him at the end of his tour.

Misunderstood Heroes
Jim Stark
(James Dean) Rebel Without a Cause 1955-

The late great Dean was the embodiment of rebel cool as a teen who felt like an outsider in his life. He didn’t know where he fit in, until Natalie Wood crossed paths with him. Once he met her, he felt a strong connection that transcended cliques, rivalries and even tragedy. Sadly, Dean’s career was cut far too soon after his death, but Rebel will continue to live on regardless.

Mikey (Sean Astin) The Goonies 1985-

On the outside, the Asthmatic young Mikey didn’t look to be the adventurous type, until one suddenly fell into his lap. With his brother and friends in tow, Mikey searches for buried treasure and tried to avoid a group of dangerous criminals on their trail. Astin made Mikey a likable hero because his fears were realistic. He didn’t suddenly transform into a young Indiana Jones. He remained an unlikely hero who used his intellect more than brawn to get to the end of the treasure map. Astin used the same level of innocence as Sam in The Lord of the Rings franchise and what make The Goonies a film to watch at any age.

Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) The Client 1994-

The late Renfro portrayed the young Mark as the ultimate accidental witness. He stumbled upon a man at the end of his rope and heard things he shouldn’t have. Renfro made Mark a young man comprised of one part tough and two parts fear as everyone is coming after him from both sides of the law. Renfro’s motherly rapport with Susan Sarandon made The Client more than the average legal thriller and just all the more tragic after his death and multiple career missteps.

In the end, age is just a number onscreen and off. Even though Drew Barrymore is in her 40s, many people still remember her as the adorable Gertie in E.T. Her innocence and precocious nature forever cemented on film. Frozen in a time where she never descended into addiction as a teenager. As another school year starts, watch great films like Stand By Me and Sixteen Candles to get yourself in the mood for fall. It'll also give you a credible excuse to behave like a kid again, at least for a few hours.

Super 8 Movie Poster
Super 8 Movie Poster
Rebel Without a Cause Poster
Rebel Without a Cause Poster
E.T. Poster
E.T. Poster
The Lost Boys Poster
The Lost Boys Poster
My Girl Poster
My Girl Poster
The Man in the Moon Poster
The Man in the Moon Poster
The Secret Garden Poster
The Secret Garden Poster
The Client Poster
The Client Poster
The Grass Harp Poster
The Grass Harp Poster
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Poster
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Poster
The Goonies Poster
The Goonies Poster
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Poster
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Poster

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