Young actors asked to convey complex emotions more often associated with adult characters

There’s more than a faint trace of peach fuzz in this year’s races for Hollywood gold, where woeful adolescent angst comes alive in all of its messy, beautiful, terrible, acne-marred splendor. Across a wide range of film genres, a crop of feisty first-timers — plucked in some cases quite literally off the streets — deliver poignantly fierce performances packed with viscerally raw emotional power.

Among the kid contenders in this season’s Abigail Breslin baton swap: Film Independent’s Spirit Award nominee Marcus Carl Franklin as an interpretative Woody Guthrie (“I’m Not There”); Dakota Blue Richards as a scrappy orphan in an magical parallel universe (“The Golden Compass”); Dillon Freasier as a pint-sized turn-of-the-century Texan (“There Will Be Blood”); Gracie Bednarczyk and Shelan O’Keefe as grieving sisters (“Grace Is Gone”); Saoirse Ronan as a British naif who sets off a chain of tragic events (“Atonement”); Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada as childhood friends in the final days of Afghanistan’s monarchy (“The Kite Runner”); and Zane Pais as the emasculated offspring of Nicole Kidman’s merciless writer in Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding.”

Pais, 14, was waiting in the wings of a New York playhouse (his mom is stage actress Lisa Emery) when he was asked to read for the role of awkward, unaffected Claude.

“My mom was doing ‘Abigail’s Party’ with Jennifer (Jason Leigh),” recalls Pais of the audition process, “and she said that I should try out. So I went over to Noah’s and Jennifer’s and I would meet with them to discuss the part. Well, I was coming home from school one day and I walked in and my mom just kind of told me that I had gotten it. I just was so happy.”

Working with Kidman added further excitement to the neophyte’s inaugural film experience, filled with such painfully uncomfortable moments as a bathroom scene in which Claude pats down the bleaching cream on his upper lip that Margot has presumably put there. When Margot leans forward to brush the hair out of his eyes, you can feel Claude’s boyhood shame brimming to the surface like a surge of bristling testosterone.

“We really had a connection working on the scenes together,” says Pais of his onscreen relationship with Kidman, “and some of the scenes get really hard, but I felt really safe just working with her.”

Chicago native O’Keefe, 12, whose acting career began “as a sort of organic thing” didn’t have to dig deep to unearth the quiet courage of her onscreen character, Heidi, a girl whose mother is ripped away by the Iraq War in James Strouse’s directorial debut.

“Just imagining the children who live their everyday lives dreaming and wishing for their parents to come home from war,” relates O’Keefe of her inspiration, “not only for this war in this country, but in all countries and all war. The war has always been a very personal thing for me. Even though I don’t have a personal family member in the war, it has been going on for (almost) half my life now.”

Both O’Keefe and fellow Chicagoan Bednarczyk, who plays her younger sister, Dawn, in the film, agreed that starring opposite onscreen dad John Cusack really helped get them into character.

Says 8-year-old Bednarczyk, “He was really fun and he was a great actor. He was nicer than my big brother.”

If poised and professional while balancing work, school and the prospect of fame, it’s the press line that can give these burgeoning kid stars twinges of grief.

“It can be really overwhelming sometimes,” admits O’Keefe, “being asked the same questions over and over again. Sometimes I’ll think about my answer afterward and think, ‘Wait, what? That isn’t an opinion of mine.’ ” Seconds Pais, “It’s still really new to me, but I’m getting more and more comfortable with it.”

As for follow-up plans in the way of future film and TV roles, these child actors are presently divided.

“I don’t think I would pursue it, per se, professionally,” predicts O’Keefe, currently auditioning for parts, “but I do enjoy it and I would like to keep doing it. There are a lot of people I would like to work with — Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, Emma Thomson and Jodie Foster.”

Bednarczyk hopes to someday multitask. “I would like to still act and I would like to be a veterinarian, too,” she says.

As for Pais, he’s ready to see if a career in front of the camera is in his future.

“I definitely want to continue acting,” he readily asserts. “I just want to put myself out there and see what happens. You know, take a deep breath and step right in.”

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