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Critic's Notebook: The year of the kid

Bebe Wood ('The New Normal'), Quvenzhane Wallis ('Beasts of the Southern Wild') are in a sterling group of young actors showing us the world through eyes of children.

October 01, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Nat Faxon and Maggie Elizabeth Jones of "Ben and Kate."
Nat Faxon and Maggie Elizabeth Jones of "Ben and Kate." (Jennifer Clasen / FOX )

Drew Barrymore got an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of the wildly eccentric Little Edie Beale in HBO's dramatic retelling of the cult-classic documentary "Grey Gardens." So what do you say about a 9-year old who delivers an equally riveting, if highly abbreviated, performance of the same character?

A recent episode of NBC's "The New Normal" included a story line about young Shania's (Bebe Wood) fascination with the documentary, which led her to don an Edie-esque head scarf and sashay around dropping lines from the film. Narratively, this served as a way to endear Shania to Bryan (Andrew Rannells), the less kid-centric partner of the gay couple for whom Shania's mother is serving as surrogate.

It certainly endeared Wood to an already smitten audience — how can you not love a pre-adolescent capable of capturing both the sweet sorrowful looniness of Little Edie and the fabulously over-the-top blue-blood New York accent?

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The actress is just one of a growing number of young performers winning hearts (and potentially golden statues) in television and film. If last year was the year of the woman, then this is the year of the kid.

Over on Fox, 8-year-old Maggie Elizabeth Jones also anchors a new sitcom, "Ben and Kate," with preternaturally composed adorableness. Unlike Wood, Jones is an old pro, having starred in "Footloose" and "We Bought a Zoo."

In the latter she managed to outshine both Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson. In "Ben" and Kate," she is equally well-matched in her costars, but it is her role, and her performance, that lifts the show out of the prefab family comedy category.

Jones' Maddie and Wood's Shania are as cute as can be and wise beyond their years. They seem very much like kids, rather than miniature adults or alien beings created to say the darnedest things and push plot.

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The pair help make the shows they inhabit more believable and compelling — and they are hardly alone in their youthful talent. They're joined by an impressive array of very young performers that includes Rico Rodriguez, Nolan Gould and Ariel Winter of "Modern Family," Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker of "Louie," Max Burkholder and Tyree Brown on "Parenthood," Atticus Shaffer of "The Middle" and, of course, Kiernan Shipka of "Mad Men."

In many ways, a child in an adult narrative serves as a canary in a coal mine — if he or she does not ring true, either through fault of writing or performance, the rest of the show will suffer. Nothing stops narrative traffic faster than a clunky kid.

Ten years ago, caught off-guard by the boutique-ing of TV at networks like HBO, Nickelodeon and Disney, broadcast television began chasing more "sophisticated" drama and comedy, which meant children grew scarce. "The Cosby Show" gave way to "Friends" while child-centric dramas like "Eight Is Enough" or "Little House on the Prairie," for the most part, simply ceased to exist.

When "Parenthood" premiered on NBC in 2010 it was one of the first hour-long dramas featuring children as main characters in years. Apparently, it's easier to deal with more mature themes (including new parenthood) if you don't have to worry about the children.

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As the major networks return to less defensive programming, they are rediscovering, along with old folks and women, children. Because when written and performed well, they add more than just the opportunity for cute sayings and poignant life lessons. With their tabula rasa quality, they provide a depth to the story, through innocence or wonder, rage and despair, that is just not possible with an adult character.

On "The Middle," Brick's (Shaffer) eccentricities are endearing and troubling. But they are clearly the attempts of a child to control the world around him, not those of a child-man cocooning himself in tics. Likewise, Louie would not be nearly as hypnotic a character if he weren't so painfully loving and real with his children.

It isn't just television that's rediscovered child power. On the big screen, one of the most talked about performances of the year was delivered by 5-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," with Jared Hilman and Kara Hayward, the runaway young lovers of "Moonrise Kingdom," coming in right behind.

Both films used to great effect the silence of children, a particular eloquence too often overlooked amid the noise and haste of television even though it is often more meaningful than anything a child says. (Only Shipka's Sally and Burkholder's Max are allowed to truly wield the power of radiating silence. Sally because "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner knows how to orchestrate stillness as well as dialogue and Max because he's autistic.)

And while each film was highly stylized in its own way, the complications of youth were given room to wander up and over the imperfect but still imposing walls of adulthood.

Which is precisely what this new breed of wunderkind remind us, over and over again: No matter how varied the time, place or trappings — big screen or small, comedy or drama, Shania's Little Edie drag or the ripped underpants of Wallis' Hushpuppy — our true collective roots as human beings remain in the shared experience of childhood.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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