The Best Breakout Performances of 2018

With these actors on the horizon, the future looks very bright indeed.
Rewind Breakouts
By  · Published on December 9th, 2018


Awkwafina Crazy Rich Asians

2018 has been a banner year for Awkwafina. Though she may play a street-savvy pickpocket in Ocean’s 8, the first of two starring roles in as many of the year’s biggest summer blockbusters, she pulls off more than petty crime, stealing group scenes on a grand-heist level. She’s the clear stand-out of that film; no easy feat when you’re on a cast list with an ensemble as starry as Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway – or when you share scenes with someone who has a presence as magnetic as Rihanna’s. Crazy Rich Asians, which provided Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum) with her other starring role this year, similarly benefits from her invigorating company. As in Ocean’s 8, there’s an improvisational edge to her scenes that injects each meticulously-dressed scene with a riotous burst of energy, giving away her comedy roots.

That Awkwafina makes such an indelible, crowd-pleasing impression is entirely down to her own skill, neither movie providing her characters with anything approaching the screen-time she deserves. Future projects should remedy that: Awkwafina is set to star in two movies premiering at Sundance, voice a major character in the Angry Birds sequel, and appear in the Jordan Peele-penned anthology series Weird City. And if that’s not enough, there’s also her eponymously titled autobiographical series for Comedy Central, which will see her star in, write, and executive produce ten half-hour episodes. 2019 may well turn out to be her year, too.

Next seen in: Weird City (TV), Paradise Hills

John David Washington

John David Washington Blackkklansman

John David Washington has been a familiar face on the small screen since 2015 when he pulled off a risky career transition from football to acting. That TV role – his first since a bit part alongside his father Denzel in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X – was a natural bridge between the two disparate career paths back then: he played NFL player Ricky Jerret in Ballers, a role he’s reprised in each of the show’s 39 episodes so far. Fast forward three years and Washington seems to have found a new playing field – cinema – and a new niche, playing no less than three police officers in 2018.

Of those parts, it’s BlacKkKlansman that marks Washington’s cinematic breakthrough (although he does make a visceral impression as a conflicted cop in Sundance winner Monsters and Men). There’s an unflappability to his character, who is frequently racially abused by his fellow cops, that recalls the steely composure of many of the performances his father made his name with – screen presence is clearly hereditary – but Washington cuts his own figure, too, breathing a sardonic air into the film’s stand-out moments. His character’s phone calls with Topher Grace’s David Duke are a particular highlight, as are the scenes Washington splits with Adam Driver, an actor whose phenomenal skill isn’t easy to match, but with whom Washington seems to share a genuine chemistry. That both have received Golden Globe nominations for their performances is no surprise, but in Washington’s case, the nod feels especially deserved.

Elsie Fisher

 Elsie Fisher Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham is rightly receiving plaudits for his shrewdly observed debut feature Eighth Grade, but his breakout status would not exist were it not for his star. The nervy realism of Elsie Fisher’s performance deepens the nuance and authenticity of Burnham’s script, turning the film’s outwardly unexceptional protagonist Kayla into a paradigm for the online generation. Her struggles aren’t entirely unique – the persisting cultural relevancy of coming-of-age movies as far back as Rebel Without A Cause can attest to that – but Fisher, like Burnham, is acutely attuned to the idiosyncrasies of her generation: she imparts an instant understanding that Kayla’s sweetly encouraging vlogs are less the result of genuine conviction, and more part of an attempt to be the voice she needs to hear – as if by parroting wholesomely affirmative mantras, she wills them into reality.

Amidst all the awkward tween-on-tween interactions and claustrophobic encounters in swimming pools, perhaps the scene following Kayla’s brush with a sexual predator best encapsulates Fisher’s potential: in an instant, she makes comprehensible the mortal wounds these kinds of encounters leave on sweetly trusting kids like Kayla. It’s not just the hot-button topicality of the scene that makes it stand out; the emotional intelligence in her performance here is extraordinary, striking, and deeply evocative for anyone (unfortunately, likely most people) who can relate to that shattering of youthful innocence. That Eighth Grade feels like it wouldn’t be out of place in an anthropological studies syllabus is to the credit of the utterly compelling Fisher.

Next seen in: The Addams Family

Helena Howard

Helena Howard Madelines Madeline

Perhaps the boldest breakthrough this year has come by way of Helena Howard’s debut performance as the titular teen in Madeline’s Madeline, Josephine Decker’s experimentally-tinged feature. It’s a given that coming-of-age performances make hefty emotional demands on a performer – adolescence is nothing if not emotionally intense – but Decker’s film points its lens at the busy junction between personal evolution, mental illness, race, and the ethics of art, eliciting something extraordinary from Howard.

As its title suggests, Decker’s is a somewhat cannibalistic film, one that implicates itself in its own investigation of the exploitative potential of art. That multi-layered quality works largely thanks to Howard herself, whose performance is uniquely fluid; it evokes, at once, the quintessential chaos of teenagehood and the murkier mind-workings of a prodigal artist, while also providing complex material for the film’s ethical consideration of mental illness and artistic manipulation. That Howard never fumbles in such an intricate effort makes her one of this year’s most exciting new talents.

Next seen in: The Wilds (TV), Shoplifters of the World

Cynthia Erivo

Cynthia Erivo Widows

Already an Emmy-, Tony- and Grammy-winner, Cynthia Erivo’s film performances this year suggest it won’t be long before she’ll be able to claim that last missing letter in the EGOT. In both heist thriller Widows (for which she was handpicked by Steve McQueen) and Drew Goddard’s neo-noir Bad Times at the El Royale, she steals all of her scenes, holding her own amidst glittering ensemble casts that include the formidable Jeff Bridges and Viola Davis.

Music is the heart of El Royale, and so, when Erivo takes the mike as the self-possessed – if a little shy – lounge singer Darlene, she becomes its soul. (Further evidence of her phenomenal talent: all of Erivo’s songs were performed live.) Similarly, gravity seems to reorient itself around her in Widows: one of that film’s most electric scenes is the one in which Erivo and Davis face each other down, never uttering a word. It’s not just her nerve that’s steely, either; her character Belle is a hairdresser, a getaway driver, and – by the looks of her most kinetic scenes – an Olympic-grade athlete. If Belle’s running and boxing prowess don’t win Erivo a lead in an action film – she would, incidentally, make an excellent Bond – then the three starring roles she already has lined up for 2019 will just have to do.

Next seen in: Chaos Walking

Henry Golding

Henry Golding Crazy Rich Asians
Warner Bros.

Henry Golding is fast becoming another serious fan favorite, both for the eighth incarnation of cinema’s most beloved MI6 agent and the Man of Steel. Each of his performances this year – as the dashing scion of one of Singapore’s old money-rich families, and the considerably less fortunate Ben Affleck proxy in Paul Feig’s Gone Girl-esque A Simple Favor – demonstrate a debonair charm and rapport with the camera so effortless he seems born for the role. And, while Feig’s movie afforded him less screen time, it did also showcase an edge not present in his intensely likable Nick Young. Irrespective of the limited range offered to him in Crazy Rich Asians, though, that part did mark something of an achievement in itself, it not always being easy to warm to cinema’s filthy rich.

Whether he’s ultimately bested by one of the myriads of other contenders for those aforementioned roles, it’s unlikely Golding will have trouble securing leads elsewhere. His current schedule is evidence of that: as the romantic lead in Paul Feig’s holiday crowd-pleaser Last Christmas, he’s set to wring at least one more use of that Nick Young brand of charm. And there are more diverse opportunities on the roster, too: Guy Ritchie’s Toff Guys will see Golding play a Vietnamese gangster, while his most significant and fleshed-out role yet looks to come via Hong Khaou’s art-house film Monsoon, which has him cast as a Vietnamese-British gay man exploring his roots in Saigon.

Next seen in: Toff Guys

Charlie Plummer

Charlie Plummer Lean On Pete

In Andrew Haigh’s Leon on Pete, Charlie Plummer is a quintessential A24 hero: unabashedly vulnerable, fiercely compassionate, and communicative in ways that don’t require words. He plays a boy who meets and finds affinity with a horse – not the most original of cinematic premises, it’s true – but Lean on Pete owes its quiet, unexpected potency to Plummer’s performance. He’s both the key to the movie’s humanism and the bedrock for its realism, communicating resilience, humility, and simmering, then seething, desperation in a largely reticent turn as Charley, a fifteen-year-old for whom an already difficult life quickly becomes an exercise in spirit-grinding.

This is not Plummer’s first major performance, having played the abductee in last year’s botched Getty biopic All the Money in the World. Unfortunately for Plummer, his performance was unforgettably overshadowed by the retroactive expulsion of Kevin Spacey and the audacious technical patch-up that frantically ensued. 2018 has more than made up for that eclipse of Plummer’s talent, though: aside from Lean on Pete, he has had another two starring roles, most notably as a boy tormented by the suspicions that his father might be a serial murderer in The Clovehitch Killer. Thankfully, the future looks like it will provide Plummer with similarly diverse opportunities: he’s set to take the lead in tearjerking YA adaptation series Looking for Alaska, sci-fi film Spontaneous, dystopian indie Gully, and another A24 distributee Share.

Alex Wolff

Alex Wolff Hereditary

Alex Wolff won’t be entirely unfamiliar to every audience demographic; he was a Nickolodeon kid in childhood, the star, along with his real-life brother, of the much-watched musical comedy show their mother created. His Hereditary character Peter doesn’t enjoy quite the same family dynamics, however, his domestic life being fraught enough even before demonic spirits begin to inhabit the bodies of his mother and sister. It’s this role that shot Wolff out of moderate success – his resumé includes a small role in last year’s box office-breaking Jumanji sequel – and into full-on stardom this year.

That celebrity is more than earned. His Hereditary performance feels highly innovative because of a decisively regressive style: in a canny evocation of the psychic damage trauma can wreak, Peter seems to revert from a mercurial teen into a boyish embodiment of one single emotion – pure, nightmarish dread – as the film lets its many terrors loose. The horizon holds similar opportunities for Wolff to demonstrate his range: amongst a couple of supporting performances in films starring Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, 2019 will also see Wolff make a bold leap behind the camera in The Cat and the Moon, a passion project he’s writing, directing, and starring in.

Next seen in: Bad Education

Yalitza Aparicio

Yalitza Aparicio Roma

Yalitza Aparicio’s will go down as one of the great non-professional acting performances in cinematic history. She had just trained to become a teacher when she was cast as the lead in Alfonso Cuarón’s most intensely personal work yet: not only is the film based in part on his own life, but Cuarón also wrote, shot, and co-cut it. Roma doesn’t feel like the “origin story” of a great director, though. That’s because, in a necessary corrective to reality, Aparicio’s Cleo – the stoic, selfless and largely underappreciated nanny for a middle-class Mexico City family – takes full focus.

That is the film’s blessing because, just as Cleo is the (often invisible) force keeping her employer’s family functioning, Aparicio is Roma’s gravity and its emotional engine. The gentleness that characterizes her performance make Cleo an instant contender for our own empathy, but that empathy never feels like it’s being asked for: hers is a performance so natural it seems not to have even been mentally processed by Aparicio as a performance in the first place; it simply flows out of her. If Aparicio isn’t deserving of an Oscar nod this year, who is?

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Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here and reviewing Columbo episodes here.