In Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie plays Tom, the daughter of Will (Ben Foster), who tries to carve a home for them in the rambling, uncharted woods of Portland's Forest Park. When park rangers discover the two, a social services agency attempts to settle them in a more conventional living arrangement. Will bristles at such confinement, wanting to return to the wild. Tom realizes that she may soon have to find her own path-with or without her father. The New Zealand-born McKenzie, who has appeared previously in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, won over Granik with her video audition. "I went back to it many times," recalls Granik. "There was something about the way she approached the character that told me she had a very rich understanding of this role." Even before coming to the States, McKenzie threw herself into the character, researching how Tom would have lived, visiting New Zealand's Adrenalin Forest to get a feel for the woods, and even starting a journal like her character does. Foster found his costar "a consummate professional, able to improvise beautifully and truthfully." And critics and audiences discovered a remarkable new talent. Comparing the young McKenzie to another Granik discovery, Winter's Bone's Jennifer Lawrence, RogerEbert.com's Brian Tallerico calls her "breathtakingly confident debut…a mesmerizing performance, one that doesn't seem like it includes a single false note."
When Jennifer Lawrence was fifteen, her mother read Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, a mesmerizing novel about a young girl trapped in a world of rural crime gangs and meth dealing in the Ozarks. "If they ever make this into a movie, you'd be perfect for it," she told her actress daughter. That year, a talent agent had just scouted Lawrence while she was on a family trip to New York City. In her hometown of Indian Hills, Kentucky, Lawrence loved being on stage, although less for the fame and more to calm her social anxiety. "I finally found a way, opened the door to a universe that I understood, that was good for me and made me happy, because I felt capable, whereas before I felt worthless," she related to Madame Figaro. It was that unassuming, rural persona that convinced director Debra Granik that Lawrence was right for the part of the self-sufficient, Ozark teen Ree Dolly in Winter's Bone. "I believed the words coming out of her mouth, Granik told the AV Club. "She was one of the few actresses where, because of her accent, I already believed that Jennifer could come from that area." Her performance more than won over critics as well. Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "Lawrence is the movie's blooming discovery, a mesmerizing actor with a gaze that's the opposite of actress-coy." As her mother predicted, the role was perfect for her. Not only was she nominated for an Academy Award, but her performance opened the door to her becoming one of the most successful movie stars working today.
While Timothée Chalamet had been in a few movies before auditioning for Call Me By Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino was drawn to the actor's presence rather than his filmography. "The guy I was talking with had this brooding, unbiased determination and ambition to be a great actor, and yet he had this kind of soft, ingénue naiveté of a young boy," recalls Guadagnino. "Those two things together were incredible." Raised in New York and France, Chalamet had appeared in commercials, TV, and films like Interstellar and Men Women & Children. But when Call Me By Your Name premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Chalamet emerged as, Rolling Stone's Peter Travers' words, "nothing less than the acting discovery of the year." As Elio Perlman, a teen who falls for a visiting scholar (Armie Hammer) at his family's home in Northern Italy, Chalamet's Oscar-nominated performance embodied for audiences around the world their own giddy, bittersweet memories of first love. The Wrap's Alonso Duralde singles out Chalamet's final solo scene as "some of the most delicate yet heart-achingly moving work anyone has ever done on screen." After being nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, Chalamet is now on every casting director's short list.
In some way, Quvenzhané Wallis first acting job was pretending to be six, the minimum age to audition for Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, when she was actually five. Her little deceit hardly mattered, because the second she started to talk, the filmmakers were already rewriting the script to incorporate her scene-stealing personality. "There's nothing you can do that scares her or freaks her out," Zeitlin told Collider. "When I saw that, I knew that was the character and who she was going to be." In the film, she plays Hushpuppy, a little girl whose life is set adrift when a major storm hits their southern Louisiana bayou home. The film, which effortlessly moves from southern gothic to magical realism, demanded the same level of emotional flexibility from its actors, a challenge that Wallis rose to with uncanny aplomb. Playing a character who has, according to The New York Times' A. O. Scott, "a smile to charm fish out of the water and a scowl so fierce it can stop monsters in their tracks," Wallis became the wondrous face of the film's free-flowing imagination. Her performance was so singular that Roger Ebert questioned, "if the movie would have been possible without her." Wallis was nine when she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, making her at that point the youngest ever nominee for an Oscar. She went on to instill that charm into a new musical version of the famed orphan Annie.
The son of writer/director Peter Hedges, Lucas Hedges grew up around filmmaking. At ten, he made his cinematic debut as an extra in his father's feature Dan in Real Life. In a summer theater show during high school, the casting director for Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom noticed Lucas, giving the teen his first break as the Khaki Scout Redford. It was that experience that convinced him, "Maybe this is something I could do. I'm gonna try it." While still a student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Lucas got a chance to audition for Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea. While the filmmaker, an old family friend, had known Hedges since he was a toddler, he wondered if the fairly inexperienced actor was ready to play Patrick, the outgoing, hockey-playing teen whose life is turned upside down when his loner uncle (Casey Affleck) becomes his guardian after his father's death. "I wasn't sure if he was going to be able to transform himself into that boy because his background is so different," Lonergan told Backstage. But he added, "Ultimately he did a beautiful job." Critics and audiences agreed. Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty named him "a real discovery" and Rolling Stone's Peter Travers singled out his "livewire, star-is-born performance." Hedges won the National Board of Review "Breakthrough Male Performance" and was nominated for an Academy Award for Supporting Actor. The next year he starred in two of 2017 most acclaimed films-Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Michael B. Jordan took to acting early. By ten years old, he was appearing in commercials for Toys "R" Us and Modell's Sporting Goods. At 15 he landed a recurring role on HBO's The Wire, and seven years later, he emerged as a significant character on NBC's critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights. While he was getting noticed, even applauded, Jordan remained in the background-as a friend, a classmate, or a sidekick. It was partially for that reason that Ryan Coogler wanted him to star in his 2013 feature debut Fruitvale Station. "When I found out he hadn't been the lead in any movies yet, I got excited to be the one that could give him that opportunity," recounts Coogler. Based on a real story, Fruitvale Station depicts the 24 hours preceding Oscar Grant's (Jordan) death after being shot by a transit policeman in 2009. To get to the heart of the man, Jordan met with Grant's family and friends in the Bay Area. With no video or audio of the actual man, Jordan realized that "you can't imitate Oscar. You have to represent him for what he is, who he was, and what he represents." The film, which won the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize, "is largely sustained by Jordan's career-making performance and the way Coogler uses it to analyze his subject," notes IndieWire's Eric Kohn. Indeed, the director/actor team proved so successful that the two went on to make both Creed and Black Panther.