The kids stay in the picture

Children are being cast in complex roles with perfs that have adults taking notice

In a season when a movie called “Little Children” features half a dozen adults who are case studies in infantilism — and where the most responsible among them, a convicted child molester, is portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley of “The Bad News Bears,” who’s been MIA for the past 15 years — perhaps it’s only fitting that a record number of adult dramas feature children in pivotal roles.

Not counting kidpics, some eight films this fall feature actors between the ages of 8 and 13 in what can only be described as nuanced character roles: Abigail Breslin, 10, stars as the eccentric, eponymous “Little Miss Sunshine”; Ivana Baquero, 12, carries most of the dramatic weight in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” as does Jodelle Ferland, 12, in Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland”; Keke Palmer, 13, in “Akeelah and the Bee” holds her own against an imperious Laurence Fishburne, as does Cameron Bright, 13, against Aaron Eckhart in “Thank You for Smoking”; Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s son Jaden, 8, makes a memorable film debut alongside his father in “The Pursuit of Happyness”; and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel,” dedicated “To my children … the brightest lights in the darkest nights,” combines multiple story threads of parents and children to showcase an American and Moroccan ensemble led by Elle Fanning, 8, dynastic heir to her sister Dakota. (A likely candidate for this group, Shareeka Epps in “Half Nelson,” is 17, although she plays younger.)

Each of these, whether through opposition or augmentation, brings a value-added performance to the template of the cute, generic child actor.

The most likely prerequisite for the standout child lead would seem to be a heightened intelligence. Cindy Osbrink of the Osbrink Agency reps more than 200 child actors — anywhere from 15 days old to those in their mid-20s who play younger — including both Elle and Dakota, now 12 (starring this Christmas in “Charlotte’s Web”).

“She’s very bright,” Osbrink says of Dakota, who in particular seems to have set the bar for her generation. “She remembers everything. She’s my walking computer. But I think a lot of it, too, is trusting their gut and their instincts, which Sean Penn taught Dakota (in “I Am Sam,” which also introduced Elle in a flashback scene). It was a great gift. It was hard, because it was her first (major) movie, but he improvises everything, and when he played that character, it was never the same twice.”

“I don’t think I’m smarter than other kids,” says Baquero, star of the Spanish film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” although her stunning command of English would seem to belie her claims. Of her director, whom she calls “an old kid,” Baquero says, “One thing Guillermo’s really proud of about me as an actress is that he says I have a really good instinct: If something goes wrong, I continue, and try to fix the scene in some way. So I think I’m quick, I get the message.”

Such instincts would seem especially imperative in the realm of comedy, especially to an actor whose identity is only just emerging.

“There’s a difference between when my friends laugh at me and when they’re laughing with me,” says Breslin, who made an early impression with her comical presence in the thriller “Signs,” but has proved herself equally adept at existential drama in the lesser-seen “Keane.” “The first time I saw ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ with an audience, some of the stuff they laughed at, I didn’t even think it was funny. But then, I don’t really get some of the stuff grown-ups laugh at.”

“I really feel like people are finally seeing kids as not just a prop for an adult actor,” says Breslin’s mother, Kim Breslin, whose son Spencer stars in the recently released “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.”

“The interesting thing with Abby is that, without ever having studied anything, in her own personal life she’s a very empathetic person and she feels things very deeply. And so in this kind of strange, bizarre way, she method acts without intending to, or being able to identify it as such.”

But the full-time stage mom is quick to point out her limitations in dissecting either child’s process. “Without ever knowing it would happen, I’m now raising two actors, and I don’t get any of it,” she says. “I don’t understand you people at all.”

“Happyness” co-star Smith, 8 years old and a closet goofball, is understandably limited in his professional insights, although his innate timing, charisma and genetic movie-star looks seem to assure him of a career if he wants it. He defines acting as “making reality onscreen,” identifies “crying” as the hardest part of it and, when pressed on whether acting is similar to playing — childhood’s designated profession — replies with a skeptical, “Not really.” Of his more famous co-star, he says diplomatically, “He helped me sometimes, but sometimes I had to help him.”

“I think what happened was somebody realized that children can act,” says Osbrink, “and so now they’re writing roles for children, instead of hiring a bratty kid to be a brat. I think a lot of that has to do with Disney and Nickelodeon coming onboard and creating shows that kids star in.

“It used to be a really big gap between going through puberty and coming out on the other end as an adult, but now teens are the hottest thing out there. It’s OK to be 12 and on TV and have braces. Dakota has braces right now.”

“Kids either have a raw natural talent or they don’t,” says Haley, who was stomped to death by Donald Sutherland in his first major role, in “The Day of the Locust,” and who worked as a commercials director in San Antonio, Texas, before his recent comeback in “Little Children” and “All the King’s Men.” “I think when you’re 12 years old, your tools are limited. But the good news is that you’re usually playing a 12-year-old.”

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