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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

Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World

Renate Reinsve Worst Person World

Renate Reinsve’s first-ever film performance, in Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st, was barely a minute long, but that brief experience was enough to convince Trier to craft an entire film around her. Watching The Worst Person in the World, you can see exactly why: Reinsve gives a magnificently full-blooded performance as Julie, a young Norwegian woman navigating the mess and stress of her twenties, an age when the future starts to look more like a ticking clock than a glorious open horizon.

Audiences don’t just get to share in the existential panic of Julie’s quarter-life crisis, though. Reinsve also opens up her ecstasies so that Julie’s chance meetings with handsome strangers and surreal romps through frozen-in-time streets become pure blasts of life-affirming magic for the rest of us, too. Hers is a performance that both captures the full, messy spectrum of a complex period of life and spins rare catharsis out of it. It’s a true revelation, as the Spike Lee-headed Cannes jury recognized when it gave her the Best Actress trophy at this year’s festival.


Suzanna Son in Red Rocket

Suzanna Son Red Rocket

Sean Baker has a knack for unearthing acting gems. From Starlet’s octogenarian lead Besedka Johnson (cast after a producer saw her at a gym) to The Florida Project’s Bria Vinaite and Valeria Cotto (discovered by Baker while scrolling Instagram and during a trip to Target, respectively), his films have often been the stepping stones through which unknowns can rise to their starry potential.

Red Rocket is no different: Baker cast Suzanna Son, whose performance has earned her Gotham and Independent Spirit nominations this year, after spotting her outside an LA cinema in 2018. Two years later, she was cast as the evocatively named Strawberry, the teenage doughnut shop employee who falls for the conman charms of parasitic has-been porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex).

He attempts to groom her as his route back into the industry, but while Strawberry certainly looks and sounds like an ingenue, she is no babe in the woods. Son imbues her performance with subtle ambiguity: in unexpected ways, she reveals Strawberry to be shrewder than we might first think, challenging easy assumptions about the dynamic of her relationship with Mikey. This nuanced performance is key to the film’s achievement of moral greyness; without it, Red Rocket simply wouldn’t work. That she proves herself capable of putting in such a tone-driving performance her very first time marks her as a real find.


Taylour Paige in Zola

Taylour Paige Zola

Taylour Paige’s performance as the titular character in Zola is the yin to the yang of her co-stars’ (genius in their own way). Where they go big, Paige deftly levels out all of their expertly orchestrated chaos with the briefest of facial expressions, saying with one sardonic flick of the eyes what is begging to be said out loud. We never mistake her relative reticence for aloof detachment, though. As the weekend from hell continues to unfold, Paige makes Zola’s anxiety palpable just below the surface, allowing her coolness to be instinctively understood as a survival tactic.

It’s an extremely carefully modulated performance, one that wrings as much expression out of its comparatively lower key as her co-stars do with their hyperbolic and neurotic antics. What’s more, Paige is no less magnetic a presence than her considerably louder scene partners: even when she’s out of focus in the background of a shot, you can’t help but look to her face for wry commentary or a telling reaction to undercut the theatrics. With this ability to wordlessly command our attention — along with her deadpan timing and dazzling physical prowess — Paige’s future promises to be as unpredictable and exciting as the film that launched her.


Woody Norman in C’mon C’mon

Woody Norman Cmon Cmon

Previously glimpsed in small roles, mostly in television series (among them Catastrophe and Poldark), young Woody Norman is granted a much larger share of the spotlight than he’s previously been afforded in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, and he proves preternaturally ready for the responsibility. In typical Mills style, C’mon C’mon is disarmingly candid about the complexity of its people, which calls for equally organic performances from its cast. Norman had his work cut out for him as precocious nine-year-old Jesse, but he never falls short of the task, and not just because he’s an English actor playing an American child.

His Jesse is as tricky and wonderful as any real kid: he’s gloriously weird, startlingly perceptive, and as paradoxically open and cagey as any little human figuring out the world for the first time is. It’s an extraordinarily mature performance, one that seems to breezily match those of his seasoned scene partners (and former child stars!) Joaquin Phoenix and Gaby Hoffmann. It isn’t hard to imagine him having a career as lengthy and rich as theirs.

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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.