‘Minari,’ ‘News of the World,’ ‘Palmer’: Striking performances from 3 young actors

8-year-old Alan Kim of “Minari,” shows off his cowboy duds.
Alan S. Kim is a scene-stealer in “Minari.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Never work with children, W.C. Fields once warned actors; they’ll steal the show. This awards season, he may have been right. Though we here at The Envelope are betting that Steven Yeun, Tom Hanks and Justin Timberlake have no regrets about pairing up with their pint-size costars in their tales of a 1980s immigrant family, the post-Civil War West and blue-collar small-town outcasts.

Here then, are three young actors who with their intensity, gentleness and downright cuteness don’t just steal the scene, they steal the entire film.

Alan S. Kim


Alan S. Kim in “Minari”
Alan S. Kim in “Minari” from A24.
(Josh Ethan Johnson/©A24)

From the moment he paraded around the 2020 Sundance Film Festival wearing a cowboy hat, boots and an irrepressible smile, 8-year-old “Minari” breakout Alan S. Kim has taken adorableness to the next level. His Instagram page is an antidote to the lockdown blues, a bright mix of videos (Watch Alan run! Watch Alan dance!) that reveal his authentic, joyful self in all of its innocent beauty.

When we talk, that blissed-out wonder is focused on a tube of lip balm, which Kim is hiding, asking Steven Yeun, who plays his father in A24’s “Minari,” to guess which hand contains the Chapstick. As Kim’s hands are too small to properly conceal the container, this isn’t too hard. But that doesn’t matter to Kim, who giggles his way through the game about three dozen times — and would probably still be playing it right now if I hadn’t interrupted by asking a question.

“He’s so pure,” Yeun says. “I’ve worked with other child actors who had a deliberate precision to what they’re doing, which is commendable. But Alan ... he’s just so honest and truthful and present in a way that adults struggle to attain.”

In “Minari,” Kim plays David, a mischievous, Mountain Dew-loving kid grappling with boredom (and embarking on the occasional adventure) when his family moves to an isolated farm in Arkansas. The arrival of his eccentric grandmother (Yuh-jung Youn) provides David with both a foil and a friend and affords viewers one of the year’s most delightful cinematic pairings.

Steven Yeun and Alan S. Kim in “Minari” from A24.
Steven Yeun and Alan S. Kim in “Minari” from A24.

Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung wanted to cast an older actor for the role (“I have a daughter about the same age and have trouble getting her to do what I want,” he says, smiling), but, ultimately, like everyone else, he couldn’t resist Kim. His audition, in which he improvised some scenes with Yeun, knocked everyone for a loop, so much so that Chung wondered if the youngster understood that Yeun wasn’t really angry at him.

“Afterwards, I checked in with him,” Chung says. “‘You know, we’re just making believe, we’re just pretending here. We’re acting.’ ‘Yeah. I know.’ That’s how convincing he is. He fooled me a couple of times.”
— Glenn Whipp

Helena Zengel

‘News of the World’

Helena Zengel as Johanna Leonberger in "News of the World."
Helena Zengel as Johanna Leonberger in “News of the World.”
(Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures)

Helena Zengel wowed audiences with her portrayal of a wild child in the German film “System Crasher” and now, the 12-year-old actress costars opposite Tom Hanks in Universal’s Paul Greengrass-directed western “News of the World.” She plays Johanna, raised by the Kiowa tribe in the Texas wilderness until Hanks’ Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd discovers her hiding in the woods.

Speaking from the Berlin home she shares with her musician parents, the bubbly Zengel stayed up late to chat about Hanks, crying on demand and eating food with her fingers in the film.

The actress is in just about every scene of “News” side by side with Hanks, who it seems really is the nicest guy in Hollywood. “He’s always got a joke, and he’s kind to everybody on set. Whenever I had questions or needed help on some lines or something, he always helped me,” Zengel says.

Acting since she was 5, Zengel drew notice as the out-of-control Benni in 2019’s “System Crasher” and now is earning praise as a possible supporting actress Oscar contender for “News.” And she’s never had an acting class. (“It just comes out of me,” she says.)

Zengel taps into that wild energy of her earlier role for much of “News” — and much of it silently, as Johanna has forgotten her English. Both elements of the story drew her to the role.

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in the movie "News of the World."
(Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures)

“I get to be so intense and emotional playing Johanna, because she’s been through so many things. And also, Johanna doesn’t speak a lot, so I only do [the acting] with my eyes. It’s really interesting to do a movie where I talk, but without words,” she says. She knows how to hold back, too, to build to an emotional climax. “You don’t want to rush the emotion,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll think of something sad, like, I don’t know, somebody died, or some horse died. And then, my face — I move my mouth or my eyes, and I do noises, and then it just keeps going and on and on, and it gets bigger and bigger, and then at the right moment, when I really cry, they do the close-up.”
It wasn’t all high drama on set, though. Zengel got to have some fun in a scene where she and Hanks stop for food. In it, Johanna eats stew with her fingers despite Capt. Kidd’s efforts to get her to use a spoon. As the other patrons are put off by the display, she annoys them further by singing a Kiowa song at the top of her lungs. The scene, she says, was one of her favorites.

“We had to do that over and over, because sometimes I’d have my mouth full with stew, and then Tom would start laughing. It was really hard for me to stay calm, like, ‘OK, be professional.’ So, yeah, the big challenge for me in that scene was to not laugh.”
— Hugh Hart

Ryder Allen


Ryder Allen stars in "Palmer" with Justin Timberlake.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

In the Apple TV+ film “Palmer,” 7-year-old Ryder Allen stars as Sam, a unique and adorable young boy living in a trailer with his drug-addicted mother Shelly (Juno Temple) on the property of Miss Vivian (June Squibb). When Miss Vivian’s grandson Palmer (Justin Timberlake) returns home after getting out of prison, he seems nearly dead inside. Circumstances force him to take care of Sam, and it’s a rocky connection at first. Palmer tries to make Sam more “normal,” rather than loving princesses and playing dress-up, but eventually he allows Sam to be Sam, and in doing so, finds an unlikely route back to himself.

Now 8, speaking via Zoom from his family’s backyard in Granada Hills, Allen describes his character Sam as “really open. If he doesn’t have something nice to say, he won’t say it. If he’s getting bullied, he’ll even be nice to them.”

The film, shot on location outside of New Orleans, marked Allen’s film debut. “I loved the set. I love Louisiana!” he exclaims. “It felt so fun, terrific, absolutely like an iced Fudgsicle.”

Or maybe a root beer float. In a pivotal scene, Palmer takes Sam out to a diner for the treat. And just like Sam, Allen had never had one before. “And I got refills too! Then I had to control all that [sugar] energy and put it into the movie, instead of running around.” Unsurprisingly, that was one of his favorite scenes, “because before we filmed, Justin and I would just talk, talk, talk, talk, and I got to know him so much, and it was even fun when I was actually filming the scene — we did some improv.”

Justin Timberlake and Ryder Allen in the movie "Palmer."
(Apple TV+)

Before his audition, Allen didn’t know anything about the actor playing opposite him. “I asked my mom, ‘Who’s Justin Timberlake?’ and she was like, ‘WHAT?!’ She taught me the JT ways. She played all the songs. Oh, and he was in ‘Trolls,’ and I watched ‘Trolls’ all the time.”

When talking about his on-screen mom, Allen lights up even more. “Juno is literally one of the best actors I’ve ever seen in my life. Every time she had to cry, she’d bawl tears, and she’s not only good for crying; she could be sad, mad, she could channel all these emotions and do it over and over again. But really, really, really, really — just if you had to say ‘really’ to get to the moon, that’s how many times I’d have to say it — she’s really the best friend ever.”
— Lisa Rosen