Bright young things

A long list of promising new femme talent came to the fore in 2003 films

Armored with twin Golden Globes nominations, Scarlett Johansson could be crowned the figurehead of this year’s unusually large contingent of bright young things.

Her wry smile and melancholy eyes — as expressive as a notebook’s worth of anguished teenage poetry — are now gracing the pages of every glossy from InStyle to Variety’s V Life. With the awards momentum for Lion’s Gate’s historical drama “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and Focus’ travelers’ fable “Lost in Translation,” the 19-year-old could be poised for some Oscar notice as well.

Johansson, however, is not the only one to bloom among this year’s high-profile pics. More than ever, it seems, talented young women of various backgrounds, ages and training, are standing out in exciting, critically acclaimed performances. From absolute beginners to up-and-comers and relative veterans of the game finally stepping into well-earned spotlight, a slew of fresh femme faces have fueled the pic biz in 2003.

Nikki Reed, 15, is the much-lauded thesp and co-writer of “Thirteen,” the cinematic diary of teenage rebellion based on her own experiences. Evan Rachel Wood, 16, scored a Golden Globe nomination for playing “Thirteen’s” lead as Reed’s on-screen best friend, and also features in the Sony’s Gothic western “The Missing.”

Steady Oscar buzz has surrounded New Zealander Keisha Castle-Hughes, 13, ever since her perf as a plucky Maori heroine who buckles tradition made “Whale Rider” into an art-house sleeper hit. Ludivine Sagnier, 24, has long been a hard-working actress in her native France but only broke through stateside as the insolent, beguiling Lolita at the heart of Ozon’s slow-burn mystery “Swimming Pool.” Possessed with the bruised cool and confidence of Euro-cinema icons like Charlotte Rampling and Catherine Deneuve — against whom she has already held her own on screen — Sagnier is no mere sex kitten. Her wordless, goofy turn as Tink the Fairy in “Peter Pan” also demonstrates her skill to riff on a Buster Keaton routine.

By contrast, Rachel Hurd-Wood, the 13-year-old female lead in “Peter Pan,” is an untrained first-time actress who is already making her mark. Critics are counting her wide-eyed sass and chemistry with the young male protagonist of the film among this year’s most appealing surprises.

Sarah Bolger, 12, and real-life sibling Emma, 8, are two Dublin schoolgirls who have made a big impression as the soulful sisters powering Jim Sheridan’s autobiographical “In America.” Their bewitching co-national Nora-Jane Noone, 19, was an equally powerful revelation playing a resourceful fallen angel in Peter Mullan’s harrowing drama “The Magdalene Sisters.” An amateur thespian, Noone appears next in “Ella Enchanted,” but has plans to complete her science degree before committing to more Hollywood projects.

Movie scribes have called precocious comedienne Dakota Fanning, 9, the best asset on display in both “Uptown Girls” and “Cat in the Hat,” two children’s romps that have otherwise enjoyed little critical success.

Among this year’s sassiest surprises was Alison Lohman, 24, who morphed with effortless aplomb from Nicolas Cage’s daughter-cum-partner in crime in “Matchstick Men,” into an ethereal object of unrequited desire in the fantasy drama “Big Fish.” Though she has been acting in theater and film since the age of 10, she credits her recent high-profile success to “a bit of luck and a lot of hard work.” Her role model is British indie maven Samantha Morton, a respected character actress at the relatively young age of 26: “I think she’s made some really good choices,” Lohman says. Fortuitously for Lohman and her exceptionally talented peers, 2003 offered young actresses plenty of meaty choices.

It is clear that for all of those who made notable impressions on screen — including Emily Grace in “What Alice Found”; Keira Knightley in “Bend It Like Beckham,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Love Actually”; Sarah Polley in “My Life Without Me”; and Amber Tamblyn, recently nominated for a Golden Globe as the protagonist in the TV series “Joan of Arcadia”– the future holds exciting promise.

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