There used to be a time when little kids on television were seen as more of a nuisance than an asset. It was a rare situation, even on shows like Full House, in which half the cast was made up of minors, that the children were given dialogue that felt like something they would actually say. They were precocious for precocious' sake, and it just felt forced and weird. And let's not forget that when child actors work, production works around them: they have to spend a few hours a day in "school", being tutored in between shooting, and such a long, hard-worked day could often lead to exhausted, whiny talent.
Personally, though, when I worked in production, I loved working with child actors. I loved the shorter hours (SAG has very specific rules about how long a child can work, tutoring, shooting, and all!), and I loved that during down time, they still had the interest and energy in playing games; I much preferred letting off some steam that way than sitting around outside smoking like the rest of the crew. Growing up around so many adults on set, the kids were able to hold conversations better than some of the rest of the crew, too. And if they got a little whiny from time to time, I understood it: they have limitations; they weren't throwing diva fits just for the sake of it.
These days it seems like many more productions are sharing my belief that children don't have to be a hindrance to a good story, but with the right child actor in the role, they can actually add much authenticity, heart, and even humor. It appears producers aren't so afraid to work with kids, and if I could be so bold, I think now more than ever some of the best child actors are finding their way into regular roles on series. Look at Modern Family for example. For a while there, sitcoms would march cute kids out only for a line or two in that "cute catchphrase" sort of way. If there was a teenage son or daughter in the family/the cast, they would get B or C plotlines, usually revolving on the stereotypical school dance concerns or a problem with their grades. But Modern Family gives each family member something real to do in each episode, most notably the kids. Steve Levitan knew what he was getting into with an ensemble that was split half-adult/half-kid, and he managed to find pure gems. Rico Rodriguez' Manny is the precocious son if there ever was one, but he plays it in a very grounded, "this is just me" way; he does not play it up to cameras and is never hammy. Ariel Winter as Alex (pictured, left) has been relatively quiet until this second season, but she is finally breaking out and dealing with all of the typical pre-teen things that you wouldn't expect from this character who seems to be above it all. Nolan Gould (pictured, right) as Luke is the opposite: he dumbs himself down for the role of a kid who hates to wear pants and often finds ways to hit his head. But for all three of them, they're tackling told-before tales of school, friends, dates, and grades, but they're doing it in a fresh-faced, smart way. Their characters are relatable, not caricatures or cartoons. They are the perfect compliments to their on-screen parents. Showtime's Nurse Jackie takes some very dark subject matter (a pill-popping nurse who cheats on and hides money from her husband) and attempts to show its lighter side. But not through its kids, and that's what is so great about the show and its young stars, Ruby Jerins and Mackenzie Aladjem. While the series itself is much more focused on their mother's work life, and therefore we don't get to see her at home with her kids all that much, when we do not a minute is wasted. Jerins manages to be completely sweet and heartbreaking at the same time with her OCD and somewhat paranoid tendencies. And both girls have such serious eyes and stern, set faces. It is as if we are watching them carry the weight of their mother's secrets without even realizing it. And when Aladjem does get a few minutes to shower her "kid-ness" on her family and the audience (like only wanting a cast for her birthday and sitting with her mother while it gets applied), it's a welcome gust of fresh, light air. Tyree Brown and Savannah Paige Rae haven't gotten to do a whole lot just yet in Parenthood, but gradually they are getting a little more, as the production team realizes they have the chops to go up against the older, more seasoned cast members and actually adlib a little bit, too. Now, singling them out shouldn't take anything away from Max Burkholder, who plays Max, but I have written about him in more depth before, and he has been in the spotlight for awhile now, since his character has had a prominent, timely storyline. The characters of Jabbar and Sydney, though, have really begun to emerge within the second season as each kid proves they are much more than just chute, cherubic faces by spewing gold. Watching Brown go head-to-head with Dax Shepard's loose scene work is adorable; there are a few moments when he seems to be lost in awe of what Shepard is doing with the dialogue, and those moments are gems because it is as if the little boy is just in awe of his dad. And it melts your heart. Rae, meanwhile, seems to relish witty, conversational banter; it is as if she has been waiting all day for those moments when she gets to interact with her on-screen parents, and she makes the most of them. Her matter-of-fact way about everything from wanting to know where babies come from to why she should dress as a certain person for Halloween might throw you off, hearing it come from her petite little package. But you can't be left off your game for too long or she'll crush you in the conversation and the scene; she's just that good.
I am not ignoring the heyday of Lindsay Lohan or a young Abigail Breslin, who both made their fame through film not that long ago. I'm also not completely counting out the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, but those are machines geared to make programming for kids, and I want to look at child actors who can hold their own opposite adult actors and in programming geared for older audiences. However, I believe that they paved the way for the real children's revolution in Hollywood to take place. No more are children just talking props to be trotted out for a canned laugh or two!
Call it what you will: say that parents are savvier now and push their kids into classes and headshot sessions and auditions with more training these days. Blame something in the water. Blame technology or the internet (it seems to get the blame for every other reason kids grow up too soon these days). But whatever the reason, the child stars of today shine brighter than ever before. And there is no reason to expect this "phenomenon" will burn out any time soon!
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