VOICE OVER: Kirsten Ria Squibb
WRITTEN BY: Connor Queen
Age is really just a number! For this list, we'll be looking at child actors who contributed to film scenes that have stood the test of time. Because we are looking at specific memorable scenes, we won't be looking at the performances alone. Consider yourself warned: there are spoilers ahead. Our countdown includes scenes from "It", Schindler's List", "Poltergeist" and more!
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Iconic Movie Scenes Performed By Child Actors. For this list, we’ll be looking at child actors who contributed to film scenes that have stood the test of time. Because we are looking at specific memorable scenes, we won’t be looking at the performances alone. Consider yourself warned: there are spoilers ahead. Are there any iconic scenes you think we missed? Let us know in the comments below.
#10: Georgie Chats with Pennywise
In Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of this iconic horror novel, audiences got a fresh iteration of the iconic opening hook. When young Georgie loses his paper boat, he comes face to face with the monstrous, fear-consuming clown, Pennywise. As terrifying as Bill Skarsgård is in this scene, it’s actor Jackson Robert Scott that helps set the bar high with his performance. Georgie’s innocence is heartbreaking. The young actor who plays him manages to convey so many different emotions within such a small time frame. Watching him lose his arm is absolutely horrifying and it gives audiences a taste of what’s to come in the rest of the film.
#9: Milk Money
“Stand by Me” (1986)
River Phoenix gave a powerful performance from start to finish in this beloved coming-of-age film. But the scene where his character, Chris, has a heart-to-heart with his good friend Gordie is a standout moment. As Chris describes a time when he was honest about stealing some milk money at school, he completely breaks down. The theme of judgment really hits home. According to director Rob Reiner, he instructed Phoenix to “think about a time that an adult, somebody important to you, let you down”. The strategy clearly worked! What makes this scene even more impactful is that its message is something everyone can relate to, adults and kids alike.
#8: “Come Play With Us, Danny”
“The Shining” (1980)
Is there anything creepier than the Grady Twins? In this adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel, Lisa and Louise Burns play the unfortunate ghosts of the previous hotel guests. While riding his tricycle through the hotel hallways, Danny’s visions begin to consume him. Not only are the Grady twins extremely eerie, but Danny Torrance also adequately conveys the psychological torture his character endures as visions begin to blend with reality. Together, the three young actors do a fantastic job of bringing this terrifying scene to life, collectively earning the moment a place in cinematic history.
#7: The Girl in Red
“Schindler’s List (1993)
As Nazis hunt down the Jewish people of Poland, Oskar Schindler spots a young girl, played by Oliwia Dabrowska, wearing a red coat. The decision to use black and white served a number of creative and thematic purposes, but highlighting the girl in red was among the most impactful. She acts, among other things, as the embodiment of innocence in the face of the unthinkable evil. Later in the film, Schindler sees her body being carted off in a wheelbarrow, a brutal confirmation that this innocence was tragically short-lived. Decades later, this brief but captivating performance—and the symbolism of the girl in red—is still being discussed.
#6: Father Merrin Performs An Exorcism
“The Exorcist” (1973)
Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, The Exorcist was originally banned in several countries upon release due to its graphic nature and content. While the voice of demonically possessed Regan was done by actress Mercedes McCambridge, 12-year old Linda Blair delivered a performance that was downright astonishing. As Father Merrin and Father Karras attempt to perform an exorcism, we see just how physically demanding the role was for such a young actress. We see her bite, shake, and flail her way to an Oscar nomination. A fair number of actors have played demonically possessed characters over the years, but this moment remains the gold standard.
#5: Kevin Washes Up
“Home Alone” (1990)
Macaulay Culkin’s breakout role in the first Home Alone captured the hearts of audiences around the world. Although there are many memorable scenes in this franchise, little Kevin McCallister burning his face with aftershave is the one that’s become the most iconic. The hyperactive talking, paired with the realization that he doesn’t fully understand what he’s doing, is a recipe that launched this short sequence into the history books. Something about little kids acting like adults pulls on everyone’s heartstrings. For a franchise to rely so heavily on one young actor’s performance is rare and it’s a testament to Culkin’s exceptional ability—which is on full display in this scene.
#4: “They’re Here”
In this horror classic, a Californian family finds their home and lives assaulted by supernatural forces. The parents do everything they can to protect their children, but the ghosts are ultimately drawn to their youngest child, Carol Anne. Heather O’Rourke, who plays the five-year-old, perfectly conveys the curiosity of a child not quite understanding of the bizarreness of the situation. The young actress gives an impressive performance, but it’s the moment she delivers this now iconic one-liner (they’re here) that really stands out. This scene inspired the cover art and tagline for the movie poster, continuing to ignite curiosity in potential viewers to this day.
#3: Elliott & E.T.’s Goodbye
“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)
Towards the end of this acclaimed Spielberg classic, we see Elliott and his gang free their beloved alien friend from the government agents. Unfortunately, their reunion is short lived as they face the reality of a painful goodbye. Behind the scenes, Henry Thomas showed incredible talent by displaying such emotion when interacting with just a puppet. What translated onto the screen, however, is a touching moment where audiences bid farewell to one of the most famous fictional characters in cinema. Without the performance of someone like Thomas, this scene was definitely at risk of coming across as silly, but instead it captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation.
#2: Christmas Eve
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
One of the younger actresses on this list, Karolyn Grimes was just six years old when she delivered her now well-known line in this heartfelt Christmas movie. With some help from Clarence the angel, George Bailey realizes just how loved he truly is. When Clarence finally obtains his wings, however, it’s Grimes who makes the audience's hearts melt. This impactful conclusion showcases the film’s themes of love, family, and friendship—all while James Stewart attempts to guide the young actress in song. Not only is this scene iconic, but it’s considered by many to be one of the best movie endings of all time.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
“He Can't See Without His Glasses,” “My Girl” (1991)
For Such a Young Actress, Anna Chlumsky Conveys Deep Grief
Playing Games with Léon, “Léon: The Professional” (1994)
Natalie Portman Displays Her Ability to Handle Mature Themes During Her Performance
In the Car, “Paper Moon” (1973)
Tatum O'Neal Shines While Playing Off Argumentative Co-Star (& Real-Life Father), Ryan
Talking with her Grandfather, “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)
At Just 9 Years Old, Abigail Breslin Adds Emotional Insecurities to Her Performance
When Gilbert Hurts Arnie, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993)
Leonardo DiCaprio Shows Immense Acting Ability Playing Arnie Grape
#1: “I See Dead People”
“The Sixth Sense” (1999)
Before M. Night Shyamalan established himself as a successful director, there was no precedent set for his films containing potential twist endings. So, when Haley Joel Osment delivered this now famous line (I see dead people), audiences had no idea he was setting up a massive twist. Osment shows exceptional acting ability as his character confides in his psychologist about the horrors of his reality. Being able to convey true terror in your eyes takes some serious skill and this scene undoubtedly helped launch both Osment’s and Shyamalan’s careers. The line in question could have fallen flat coming from a lesser actor, but it’s instead become one of the most iconic and quotable in all of cinema history.