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The 15 Best Breakout Performances of 2021

From seasoned professionals getting their long-overdue recognition to newcomers who were plucked from obscurity through pure chance, here are 15 performers who signaled a bright horizon for cinema this year.
Best Breakout Performances
By  · Published on January 3rd, 2022

This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we explore the best breakout performances of 2021.

This year marked a partial return to form for cinema: while the backlog of delayed 2020 releases began to clear and (some) movies made their much-anticipated homecoming to newly reopened theaters, the ongoing pandemic meant much of our movie-watching continued to be done from home.

Whether we witnessed their ascendancy by returning to theaters or via streaming, though, nothing could dampen the glow of the year’s rising stars. Some were seasoned professionals getting their long-overdue recognition, while others were plucked from obscurity through pure chance. And while some dazzled under the full beam of the spotlight, others made quietly stirring impressions in smaller supporting roles.

However they made their way to our screens, each gave us the thrill of discovery and cheered us up by demonstrating the diversity of talent coming up on cinema’s horizon. Below, we celebrate 15 of the most exciting rising stars that 2021 introduced us to.

Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger

Adarsh Gourav The White Tiger

Already an established talent in India, Adarsh Gourav made his international breakout with a starring role — his first lead — in Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger. He plays Balram, an ambitious young man who finds cunning ways to circumvent the glass ceiling of India’s caste system.

Gourav gives a cleverly acrobatic performance. When Balram is around his condescending employers, he adopts the dutiful mask of fawning help, but Gourav ironizes this façade as the injustice of their pre-destined power dynamic gradually dawns on Balram. He makes this a fully organic transformation, entwining fine threads into his performance — among them desire and self-disgust — without which The White Tiger would have been a considerably flatter portrait.  Rather than the rich character study that it is.

This barnstorming performance earned Gourav nominations from BAFTA and the Independent Spirit Awards this year, as well as a second major international role, in Apple’s upcoming climate change anthology series Extrapolations.

Agathe Rousselle in Titane

Agathe Rousselle Titane

There is surely no more unique role this year than the one Agathe Rousselle plays in Titane. Director Julia Ducournau’s sophomore feature ups the grisly stakes set by her debut, Raw, with the story of an erotic dancer who, after suffering a traumatic accident in childhood, becomes sexually magnetized by cars and equally drawn to serial murder. Forced on the run, she breaks her own nose and binds down her mysteriously motor oil-leaking breasts so she can pass as a young man who went missing 10 years ago.

Such a potted summary belies Rousselle’s visceral performance as Alexia, which unearths unexpected sensitivity and humor out of the plot’s extreme eccentricity. In a film full of brazenly transgressive elements, it’s the intimations Rousselle draws out about gender, performance, and sacrifice that leave the deeper impression.

In particular, it’s enormously affecting to watch Alexia fight to control impulses she doesn’t seem to ever have denied before on account of a reason she’s never had before: love. That she pulls off such a transformation largely through body language — owing to her character’s reticence and the movement-centric nature of the role — marks her as an extraordinary one-to-watch.

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza

Alana Haim Cooper Hoffman Licorice Pizza

Vibrant. That’s the first word that comes to mind when reflecting on Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim’s breakout performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. Though working through characters with their fair share of differences, Hoffman and Haim are gloriously vibrant.

As a teen actor with an entrepreneurial spirit, Hoffman’s Gary is all adolescent charm and unparalleled energy. He’s a jokester, a swindler, and a smooth-talker, but there’s a lurking frequency of doubt that hums through him. As we see him facing down the barrel of adulthood and so eager to arrive there, it’s hard to not feel protective of this precocious, feverishly alive, and bountifully flawed young man.

Opposite Gary is Haim’s Alana, a 20-something careening from job to job and romantic interest to romantic interest. She fights with her family and gets lost in conversations with the “real” adults around her. Haim is at once ferocious and insecure, caught in a space of maturity and possessing a desire to rescind from it.

Hoffman and Haim also play off each other incredibly well, and it’s a credit to their performances and Anderson’s writing that when Gary and Alana are locked in an argument, we can’t help but feel for both sides. These are characters who, in all their troubles and triumphs, seem as real as if they were standing right before us instead of onscreen in the world of 1973. That we’ll get to watch these two young actors perform for (hopefully) many years to come feels like nothing short of a miraculous gift. (Anna Swanson)

Amir El-Masry in Limbo

Amir El Masry Limbo

In Transit, Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel about a refugee’s long wait to secure the visa that would allow him to flee the Nazis, a character tells a joke about a dead man waiting to hear where God will send him. After a century of sitting tight, he begs for a decision, to which he’s told, “What do you think you’re waiting for? You’ve been in hell for a long time already.

With the aptly titled Limbo, writer-director Ben Sharrock evokes the same sense of absurdist humor and crushing despondency out of the Kafka-esque bureaucratic situation currently facing refugees in the UK and much of the West. That complex tone is wrought in part by Sharrock’s sensitive screenplay and direction. But its other chief author is Amir El-Masry, who plays the film’s lead, a Syrian musician waiting out endless days in the chilly purgatory of a refugee processing center on a remote Scottish island.

Whether deadpanning a farcical cultural awareness class or quietly yearning to be at home in the past, his performance is a gentle one, never over-stated or straining. The result is that Omar is never flattened into a binary figure or played as a one-note socio-political shorthand. He is a person with depths like any other, something that years of cinematic portrayals — both well-meaning and otherwise — of refugees, Arabs, and Muslims have fallen short of conveying.

Add to this the authentic linguistic details that El-Masry adds in solely for the benefit of Arabic-speaking viewers — frequently neglected as audiences, despite being depicted so often — and his performance becomes more than just a display of talent. It also announces the arrival of a genuinely enriching presence to the screen.

Dominique Fishback in Judas and the Black Messiah

Dominique Fishback Judas Black Messiah

Dominique Fishback wasn’t exactly unknown before this year. Her pre-2021 credits included starring roles in The Deuce, Project Power, and The Hate U Give. But arguably her biggest breakthrough came by way of her work in Judas and the Black Messiah, for which she earned a BAFTA nomination.

Playing Fred Hampton’s partner and fellow activist Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri), Fishback is enormously moving in quietly devastating ways. Through a balance of sensitivity and conviction, her performance enriches the film by drawing out the softer, less assured side of Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton and impressing upon us the agonizing personal stakes of his work.

In one standout scene of great intimacy, Fishback recites a poem about their unborn child. A poem that Fishback, a spoken word artist, actually penned herself. Another piece of Fishback’s writing — the one-woman play she wrote as her degree thesis — is already being adapted into a special (to be executive produced by her Project Power co-star Jamie Foxx), suggesting that she has a bright future both in front of and behind the camera.

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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 @AttractionF and reviewing Columbo episodes here.