Young performers show mature skills

September 26, 1993|By Robert A. Abele | Robert A. Abele,Contributing Writer

Remember Justin Henry? "Kramer vs. Kramer"? The kid?

He's pretty much relegated to trivia status these days, but in 1980, his deserved Oscar nomination at the age of 8 was big news; he was the youngest person ever to be so honored. He lost, but his honest performance was as necessary to the film's success as were those of his co-stars, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, both of whom won statuettes that year.

But hey, he was a child. At that age, he was lucky to get nominated. And no child has been so recognized since by the Academy. Even Henry Thomas didn't, for being the audience's eyes and ears in a certain film about a lovable alien who enraptured the world.

But this year, it's getting more difficult to ignore the efforts of the preteen set. A short list of the year's best acting jobs comes from the films "King of the Hill," "The Secret Garden," "Searching for Bobby Fischer," "Free Willy," "This Boy's Life" and "The Man Without a Face" -- all from their child stars. And because of those performances, these are among the year's best films, as well.

The trick, however, will be getting the Oscar folks to acknowledge these young actors. So here's a reminder of who shouldn't be forgotten come spring.

Aside from "Jurassic Park," which was basically a monster flick, the most popular youth-oriented film so far this year is "Free Willy," a boy-meets-whale love story. At the heart of why it works so well is Jason James Richter's performance as Jesse. The filmmakers were smart to draw us in through a troubled kid -- the boy's need to belong somewhere is the real story, not just the whale's plight. As a result, the film has a welcome edge, preventing sentimentality from ruining a tale of sentiment, the curse of most "family" films.

Showing the pain

To achieve this, Jason James Richter spares little in expressing the boy's welled-up frustration through much of the film, and he imbues young Jesse with real loneliness, hurt and longing. If he's a pain, it's because he's in pain. This makes his first moment of actual contact with Willy -- a hesitant stroke on the whale's head -- thrilling. He is the movie's searching force.

In "Searching for Bobby Fischer," the true story of chess-whiz Josh Waitzkin, writer-director Steve Zaillian was crafty to cast Max Pomeranc -- he was already a chess wunderkind himself, and needed only coaching as an actor. The result is that young Mr. Pomeranc tells us practically everything about Josh with only his eyes. They seem to carry the weight of the world as well as a thirst for guidance. The movie's heartfelt examination of the bond between child-son-student and adult-father-teacher has its soul in the youthful actor. With powerful understatement, he leads us through the maze of confusing loyalties children often feel to ultimately reveal Josh as a winner in his own right. Although Max Pomeranc is playing an "exceptional" kid, he communicates the universal qualities of growing up under pressure.

The young girl at the center of the film adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic story "The Secret Garden" is similarly ostracized from normal childhood, but not because of any particular talent. Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) is a sheltered orphan with a nasty temper who is given the rare opportunity to see a sadder mirror image of herself in her ill cousin, who is kept isolated in his decaying mansion by the ignorant adults around him. She seizes an opportunity to befriend someone her own age, and in the process unleashes her potential for love and kindness . Kate Maberly's petty, angry rants early on are forceful yet pathetic, which makes her transformation nothing short of joyous. Along with the perfect Andrew Knott as the good-natured working-class boy Dickon and Heydon Prowse's Colin, she shares with the audience the magic of discovery.

While whales and chess and shrubbery may be wonderful means to spinning childhood yarns, sometimes the mechanics of basic survival make for gripping childhood drama, as in "This Boy's Life," Tobias Wolff's memoir of growing up with an abusive stepfather.

The film version unfortunately turns an unapologetic, episodic series of crisp, revealing anecdotes into something clumsily linear, but it contains a powerhouse performance by Leonard DiCaprio as young Toby. Mischievous and resilient, Toby is a boy trapped and yet ultimately freed by his rebelliousness. Young Mr. DiCaprio embraces raucous adolescence and world weariness, love and hate, alienation and companionship, all with a bracing sense of humor and an abundance of personality. As rendered by Leonard DiCaprio, Toby is a boy we all knew at that age, a kid for whom "trouble" was a necessary badge of honor, an endurance test to prove you were alive.

Charm and wit

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