There’s something remarkable about a breakthrough performance for a new actor or actress. It’s something to build a career and a reputation on. It could be something that spurs critical reevaluation of their handful of previous roles. More than anything, a breakout performance startles us in some profound way; by the end of the film we’re left thinking, “If this is just the beginning, I can’t wait to see this person does next.” That’s probably the best way to introduce the people we’ve nominated for Best New Performer.
Most of these actors and actresses have had some roles in the past but finally managed a major breakthrough. That’s the case with like Adepero Oduye from Pariah, Shailene Woodley and Nick Krause from The Descendants, Rooney Mara from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Asa Butterfield from Hugo, and Felicity Jones from Like Crazy. Our final two nominees made their feature-length debuts in 2011: Joe Boyega from Attack the Block and Elizabeth Olsen from Martha Marcy May Marlene.
As memorable as these performances were, we could only give the Golden Dactyl to one of these fine actors and actresses.
Watching Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene is something of a revelation. This is her acting debut, and what she does here shows a talent far beyond her years (she’s only 22) and a staggering promise of greater things to come. Olsen portrays a young woman whose life has been undone by a bizarre cult in upstate New York. Even though she’s surrounded by an incredible cast (John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy), the entire weight of the film rests on Olsen’s shoulders.
Olsen is compelling every moment she’s on screen. As the film goes back and forth in time (life in the cult, life immediately after the cult), we see the many facets of this character with many names: there is the abused side, there’s the emotionally detatched side, there’s the manic side, there’s the compassionate side, there’s the side of absolute cruelty, there’s the side of absolute helplessness. Her work is mesmerizing, and it’s riveting, but more than anything, her performance is sympathetic and true, and that’s why it succeeds. We’re shown a character who is paranoid, distraught, and severely damaged. We want someone to do something to help her, but it seems like nothing will heal those deep wounds in her psyche. Elizabeth Olsen plays an injured soul so believably that it’s heartbreaking.
Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) – 4
Joe Boyega (Attack the Block) – 1
Asa Butterfield (Hugo) – 1
Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) – 1
Nick Krause (The Descendants) – 1
Adepero Oduye (Pariah) – 1
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – 1
Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) – 1