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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

Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur in CODA

Emilia Jones Troy Kotsur Coda

The brilliance of CODA lies in the way it fashions something truly affecting out of an unashamedly familiar formula. Much of the unexpected charm of this Sundance darling (it picked up four awards at the festival, where it also earned a record-setting distribution deal with Apple) comes from its cast, and in particular, standouts Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur.

Jones plays Ruby, a teenager who must balance school, working on her family’s fishing boat, chasing her musical dreams, and helping her deaf family communicate with the hearing world. It’s a significant responsibility that sometimes threatens to be too much: in one scene at a doctor’s office, for example, Ruby is exposed to the mortifying details of her parents’ jock itch and is tasked with relaying the doctor’s advice (temporary celibacy) back to them.

In scenes like these, Kotsur, a seasoned stage actor who developed the Tusken sign language for The Mandalorian (and who also plays a Tusken Raider in the series), proves a brilliantly coarse comic performer as Ruby’s father, Frank.

Separately, both actors are excellent — Jones is a winning lead, and Kotsur is a similarly charming and perceptive performer — but they have such natural chemistry that it’s in their shared moments that they’re at their best. That’s never truer than in the film’s most poignant scene, during which the two find a rare moment of pure connection. Though CODA is ostensibly Ruby’s coming-of-age story, it’s Jones and Kotsur’s linked transformation that really forms its heart.

Lashana Lynch in No Time to Die

Lashana Lynch No Time To Die

How do you leave a meaningful impression in a movie set up to be the biggest capital-g Goodbye that a franchise daddy like James Bond has ever had? In No Time to Die, the definitive era-ender to Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond, Lashana Lynch meets this challenge head-on. As newcomer Nomi, the young MI6 agent who is revealed to have taken over the 007 mantle, she matches her seasoned predecessor for charisma and physical flair.

She also brings refreshing wit to the movie, which does much to help lighten what might otherwise have been a gloomy farewell. That she makes such an impact on the movie with relatively modest screen-time is testament to her expressive talents (further demonstrated this year by her revealing turn as a frustrated student dismantling her white professor’s self-professed objectivity in debbie tucker green’s experimental stage adaptation ear for eye).

Whether Nomi survives the franchise’s post-Craig renovation or not, Lynch’s future prospects look bright, as confirmed by the diversity of her upcoming roles: as Miss Honey in Netflix’s Matilda and as a warrior in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King.

Patti Harrison in Together Together

Patti Harrison Together Together

From voice roles in Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon to riotous pop-up appearances in I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (for which she also received writing credits), Patti Harrison is having a huge year. Of the 12 performances that she gave in 2021, though, one stands out. In Nikole Beckwith’s low-key dramedy Together Together, she plays Anna, a young loner who offers to be the surrogate mother for the child of aspiring dad Matt (Ed Helms).

He is openly neurotic but ultimately sweet, while Anna keeps her vulnerabilities in reserve behind a sardonic front. There’s comedy in that juxtaposition, but there’s also a lot of heart. Harrison and Helms gradually find a kind of chemistry that’s special not just because it’s entirely platonic, but because of how gentle and authentic it feels.

It takes two to pull off such an achievement, but Harrison’s part feels like the more decisive one because she’s required to give a more understated performance, a feat she makes look effortless. It’s her gradual opening up that drives the deepening of their relationship, and Harrison knows when and how to subtly deploy emotion to make this evolution feel natural.

That she makes such an accomplished dramatic turn in her first lead role should mean her schedule will remain as packed and diverse in future years as it has in 2021.

Rachel Zegler in West Side Story

Rachel Zegler West Side Story

Between Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Ariana DeBose, and Rachel Zegler, West Side Story boasts a gang of breakout talents. For its sheer bolt-from-the-blue quality, though, Zegler’s is the one we’re spotlighting here. She is the definition of a breakout star: as a high schooler, she sensationally burst into the public’s consciousness when she was picked to play Maria after responding (along with 30,000 other applicants) to a Twitter casting call for Steven Spielberg’s momentous musical remake.

Unlike her co-stars, Zegler didn’t have a Broadway resumé with which to convince, but a YouTube channel full of vlogs and singing videos instead. Her performance combines those two modes of performance: her expressions are confessional, her voice immaculate. Zegler, who had a taste of fame after her cover of Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” went viral pre-Maria casting in 2018, never falters under the enormous pressure of the role despite its considerable stage and screen legacy. A real star is born.

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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.