Every year, there are a series of newcomers who breakthrough into the mainstream. These performers range from young actors in their first roles or veteran actors who finally get the notoriety they deserve. Either way, many of these performances are not only breakouts for these actors & actresses, but they may even be worth award considerations.
It’s not just big, Marvel blockbusters in which these talents are being discovered. These performances range from blockbusters to indie critical darlings. Just like critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) said in Ratatouille, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Here are 9 breakout performances from 2021.
Agathe Rousselle (Titane)
Titane is Agathe Rousselle’s first leading role in a film, yet you wouldn’t know it. She has an incredible command of the screen and is constantly demanding your attention. Not only that, but Titane is quite the film to start out with. It’s a movie about murder, drugs, violence, and vehicular sex. Many of these scenes demand a lot from Rousselle and she delivers.
Her character does a lot of horrific things but it’s difficult to go against her. Director Julia Ducournau does a great job at bringing out her inner mindset and Rousselle’s performance creates this incredibly complex character. It’s an incredibly shocking and controversial, yet moving performance that will keep Rousselle on everyone’s radar for a long time.
Emilia Jones (CODA)
Emilia Jones showed off how much of a double threat she is in CODA. Not only is she a great singer, but she is also a gifted actress. In CODA, Jones is the only hearing member of a deaf family. However, her love for singing comes into conflict with her duty towards her family as the only person who can communicate verbally with others in their community. Jones is working directly with deaf actors and actresses and she does an amazing job at creating emotion, not only through her expressions but also through her use of sign language.
The conflict she feels between pursuing her own dreams and remaining loyal to her family is completely believable and it comes off as something she’s been dealing with her entire life. The pure joy she feels from singing is infectious and creates many emotional moments. The scene where she sings to her father in the back of a truck may be the most powerful scene in any movie this year. She also has awesome chemistry with her music teacher, played by Eugenio Derbez. Jones’ performance delivers a massive amount of versatility that will certainly have her popping up in a multitude of projects going forward.
Leslie Grace (In The Heights)
Leslie Grace has already been successful in the Latin music industry and now she is beginning a new journey in Hollywood. Grace has a beautiful singing voice, but her acting performance also stands out in In The Heights. Her character, Nina, feels a heavy burden of responsibility. She is one of the few people in her community who went to college and she feels like she not only has to make her father (Jimmy Smits) proud but the community itself.
Her dilemma is unique from other characters in the film but relatable to many who have been in similar situations. Grace conveys this internal conflict through her singing and through the conversations she has with her father. She also has a budding relationship with Corey Hawkins, with whom she has great chemistry. Grace has recently been cast as DC’s Batgirl and we look forward to seeing her as the badass crime fighter.
Meng’er Zhang (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings)
Going into Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, all eyes were on Simu Liu, the new, fresh face in the MCU. However, Meng’er Zhang managed to stand out as Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing. As a child, Xialing was not allowed to train with the rest of the men in her father’s forces, forcing her to train on her own and forge her own path. Zhang gives this character a rough exterior who has a hard time showing off her vulnerabilities.
She feels a need to portray the image of an unmoving force who is stronger than her enemies. As she opens up more to Shang-Chi, we are given a character who has many insecurities but has always been willing to push past them. Still, Xialing is a force to be reckoned with and this also comes through in Zhang’s fighting. She handles the action sequences very well and is definitely a character who could go toe-to-toe with our main hero. Since she now rules her father’s (Tony Leung) empire, we can’t wait to see her impact going forward in the MCU.
Woody Norman (C’mon C’mon)
Ever since Jacob Tremblay’s performance in Room, there has been a new bar set for performances from child actors. 2021 had two great performances from two young boys that could rival Tremblay. The first is Woody Norman, who acted against Academy Award winner Joaquin Phoenix. Norman plays Jesse who goes on a road trip with his uncle while his mom takes care of his mentally sick father. What’s incredibly impressive is just how authentic this performance feels.
Norman manages to accurately portray how a kid his age would react to this scenario. He is confused, anxious, and frightened, but often has the childlike wonder where he is more preoccupied with the environment around him. He is a quirky kid as well. The scene where he wants to portray a lost orphan shows how unusual he is but it also shows the odd imaginations that many kids have. He and Phoenix have wonderful chemistry, even in moments where the two are upset with one another or struggling to communicate properly. Most of C’mon C’mon really rides on the audience being invested in their relationship and both Norman and Phoenix create a charming bond between a peculiar kid and an uncle who is struggling to understand him.
Jude Hill (Belfast)
The second fantastic child performance on this list comes from Jude Hill for his performance as Buddy in Belfast. Similar to Norman, Hall is a kid placed in an incredibly difficult situation. His family is struggling with money and health concerns which can be tough for a kid to deal with at such a young age. Not only that but Hall’s character is also living in Ireland in the middle of the war between Catholics and Protestants. It is a time where not only is his family in conflict but his community, as well.
Still, Hill remains concerned with smaller issues, such as science projects, math, and impressing his crush at school. His love of movies and entertainment also pulls him out of this harsh reality into another world and these moments are filled with wonder and you can see it in Hall’s eyes. Buddy is in the midst of an incredibly frightening time in his life and Hill does an incredible job reacting to it like someone his age would. Seeing the events of Belfast through Hall’s perspective captures the horror and confusion but also the innocence of this moment in time for his character.
Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza)
Cooper Hoffman could have also made this list, however, Alana Haim is the one who truly broke from her performance in Licorice Pizza. Haim is simply radiating in this performance, with charm, grit, and a rebellious nature that makes her character highly relatable. Both she and Hoffman are trying to figure out what to do with their lives while also trying to balance their social and romantic lives in the 1970s.
Paul Thomas Anderson always has a great cast that brings their A-game. Haim acts against Hollywood vets like Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn and still is able to perform like she’s been doing this for just as long. Haim is traditionally known for her musical talents as she is in the band, Haim, with her sisters. However, you will have to add acting to her resume as she completely shines in her debut and will certainly have many roles to come in her future.
Daniela Melchior (The Suicide Squad)
Before The Suicide Squad, no one had any idea who Ratcatcher II is. Now, many people want to see more of this character after the fantastic performance from Daniela Melchior, who made her English film debut in this series. Ratcatcher II is the most innocent member of The Suicide Squad. She has plenty of empathy for others, including King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), who she sweetly tries to befriend. However, she can turn on a dime, especially with the power she holds as she can control an army of rats to do her bidding.
She isn’t really a villain, just someone who is trying to make her way in life. Melchior brings a ton of soul and innocence to this character, especially when she reflects on the relationship with her father (Taika Waititi), who taught her to see the beauty in the world. It’s hard to stand out in a cast filled with stars like Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, and John Cena, but Melchior proved to be truly memorable and hopefully returns as this character at some point in the near future.
Rachel Zegler (West Side Story)
Rachel Zegler has a background in musical theater but sometimes that doesn’t translate as well to the big screen. However, Zegler rose to the occasion for West Side Story and delivered an unbelievable performance as Maria. Taking on a role previously played by Natalie Wood, Zegler brings her own interpretation to this role, making this version of Maria feel truly original. Not only that but Zegler has a beautiful singing voice and is still able to work in the emotion of the songs into her expressions and singing.
Zegler also acts beautifully with her fellow cast members and creates chemistry with co-star Ansel Eglort. She is incredibly charming and likable while still embodying the tragedy and danger of her situation. In her debut performance, Steven Spielberg has truly found a star in the making and Zegler is already on the way to a massive career in Hollywood, being cast in Shazam: Fury of the Gods and as Snow White in Disney’s live-action remake. The world may not be ready yet for Zegler.