Once hailed as “The Next Spielberg,” M. Night Shyamalan has become somewhat synonymous with disappointing failure. He came onto the scene with the arguably universally adored The Sixth Sense, but many fear his directorial prowess stopped there. Films like Unbreakable and Signs have their respective fanbases, but the failures of Lady in the Water, The Village, and The Happening, all but destroyed any sense of credibility he once held. Shyamalan has been the subject of ridicule for years, reduced to a “twist” punchline on Robot Chicken, and acts as the symbol many female directors cite when discussing how bogus it is that failed male filmmakers can continue their careers despite “flopping.” M. Night Shyamalan has all but proven that The Sixth Sense was a fluke, but there’s one thing about Shyamalan that makes him stand out compared to anyone else working in the genre…
The man can direct the shit out of child actors.
A recurring theme in Shyamalan’s filmography is utilizing children as the major players in the story. The Sixth Sense made Haley Joel Osment a household name, Signs brought out the child performing dynamo that is Abigail Breslin (and a non-Macaulay Home Alone starring Culkin sibling), The Happening featured the child from the only redeeming scene in Crash, and his newest effort, The Visit showcases two of the best child performances in a horror film in recent memory with Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould. There’s an old superstition about the industry that encourages filmmakers to avoid working with animals, fire, or kids. Well, Shyamalan keeps putting kids in his films, and trusts them enough to let an entire movie hang on their performances.
Haley Joel Osment nabbed an Academy Award nomination for his performance in The Sixth Sense and remains as one of the youngest male actors to ever be nominated for an Oscar. Abigail Breslin was nominated for an Oscar at 9 years old, but she earned a spot on the map by playing the adorable daughter of Mel Gibson in Signs. One of the strongest scenes of the entire film is watching Breslin react to her father visibly showing weakness in front of his family, and Breslin’s sincerity was undeniable. Hell, Avatar: The Last Airbender may have been a proverbial shit show, but the kids playing these iconic characters really, really delivered some great performances with such a horrid screenplay. Shyamalan couldn’t escape the found footage trend plaguing the horror genre, so audiences were understandably skeptical of The Visit from the jump. The biggest complaint that comes from found footage films deals with the inauthentic feeling from its performers, but Shyamalan pulled some incredible performances from the two child actors. The film is told from the perspective of these two children, as they’re the ones in control of the camera. Their thoughts, interpretations, and assessments of the world around them shape the film we witness, and these kids are impossible not to love.
Sure, Shyamalan may struggle in the storytelling department at times, but he’s consistently bringing incredible child performers to the forefront, and reminding audiences that there’s more than just Disney Channel kids with Neutrogena commercial smiles trying to break into the industry. A lot of child actors owe their careers to Shyamalan, and he genuinely excels at taking the risk of letting children tell the story, something that hasn’t really been done since the days of Amblin Entertainment. He may not be the next Spielberg, but at least he’s done something right.
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