The kids are all right: Child actors are enjoying a golden age in Hollywood

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Young stars such as Tom Holland from The Impossible and Bafta-winner Harley Bird are leading the Britpack.

There has never been a better time to be a child actor. The Best Actor prize at last month's Tribeca Film Festival went to Sitthiphon Disamoe for his turn in The Rocket, in which he plays a 10-year-old Laotian boy who enters a rocket-making competition in an effort to help his displaced destitute family.

At this year's Oscars, Quvenzhané Wallis, nine, became the youngest female to receive a nomination in an acting category, for her mesmerising turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild. At one stage there was talk that the young British actor Tom Holland, 16, who caught the eye in the tsunami drama The Impossible, might also get a nomination. Awards bodies are increasingly nominating young actors, making a mockery of the old adage about not working with children.

It could be that young performers are simply getting better or that directors are increasingly adept at getting good performances out of children. Take Tye Sheridan, the star of Mud, a fable about two 14-year old boys (debutant Jacob Lofland is the other) who discover a mysterious man (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out and building a boat on a secluded island off New Orleans. Critics have repeatedly singled out the performances of the youngsters in Jeff Nichols' new film.

In The New York Times, A O Scott wrote that the two boys "have been guided into exceptionally subtle feats of acting". While Variety's Peter Debruge said: "Sheridan makes an especially strong impression."

In his first three films, Sheridan has worked for Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life was his debut), Nichols and David Gordon Green (the upcoming Joe alongside Nicolas Cage). It's a run that seasoned actors would be proud of. Indeed, the competition for parts among children is just as congested as it is for adults. Sheridan, now 16, says, "I went to an open audition when I was aged 10 or 11, and I think that Terrence Malick saw 10,000 boys for the three parts. I think that I got cast out of luck!"

In fact, Sheridan was cast on the recommendation of the producer Sarah Green, who was also behind The Tree of Life. Now, over milk shakes with his pals, Sheridan can impress with anecdotes such as: "I'm a big James Dean fan. Actually, Nic Cage turned me on to James Dean when I was working on Joe with him. He came up to me and said: 'You remind me of this guy, you need to check out his movies!'"

The UK's youngest rising star is Tom Holland. He was 12 when he made his West End debut in Billy Elliot. Two year later, he was shooting The Impossible and it was he, not superstar Ewan McGregor, who was getting the rave notices and being sent to the longlist Oscar dinner. "I met two of my movie heroes," Holland enthuses. "I met Tom Hanks and I met Steven Spielberg. Oh and Quentin Tarantino. Those three made the evening for me. Just being considered was an honour for me. To be compared to these A-list actors – it's really nice to be seen on this level, it's a privilege to be there."

He will next be seen in How I Live Now. Kevin Macdonald's adaptation of Meg Rosoff's apocalyptic novel will also star Saoirse Ronan, who was only 13 when she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her turn in Atonement. Having just turned 19, she was the veteran on set. Also in the cast is Harley Bird, who in 2011 became the youngest Bafta winner ever, when, aged nine, she picked up an award for her performance as the voice of the cartoon character Peppa Pig.

"I've never had any acting classes or anything like that," Bird told me in her first interview on set. "Since I was younger, I've always been a drama queen. I've read parts of the book and it's really good."

Finding new young stars has taken on an added urgency since the last wave of child actors graduated at the end of the Harry Potter franchise (and to a certain extent, Twilight, which featured teenage talents). Now Britain's twentysomething talents are heading for Hollywood. The French director Alexandre Aja has cast Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella and the slightly older Joe Anderson in his forthcoming horror film Horns.

Aja says: "All Brits. But it's a completely American story, it's set outside Seattle. I think that there is a reason for that. The US has turned into a Twilight factory while the UK is still providing actors who are deeper in what they express. Even if Rob Pattinson is English, the Taylor Lautner style is what LA and New York is creating. In fact, it is not the Twilight factory, it is the Disney factory. The Disney Channel is creating an American actor that looks a certain way. Mostly it's young girls."

The lack of an American who might follow in the footsteps of Jodie Foster could explain why there is so much emphasis on young Americans in dramatic roles. That said, childhood success is no harbinger of a long and fruitful career. The template for failure was established early, as Shirley Temple, generally acknowledged as the first juvenile star, initially announced her retirement at the age of 22. She never matched her childhood success as an adult and in 1988, aged 60 published her autobiography, titled Child Star.

'Mud' is released tomorrow; 'How I Live Now' is due out in October

Three Oscar contenders who went on to success

Anna Paquin

She won for 'The Piano' (Best Supporting Actress Oscar) aged 11.

Jodie Foster

Nominated for 'Taxi Driver' (Best Supporting Actress Oscar) aged 14.

Saoirse Ronan

Nominated for 'Atonement' (Best Supporting Actress Oscar) aged 13.

... And three who didn't

Justin Henry

Nominated for his turn in 'Kramer vs Kramer' (Best Supporting Actor Oscar) in 1979 aged eight.

Linda Blair

Nominated for 'The Exorcist' (Best Supporting Actress Oscar) aged 15.

Quinn Cummings

Nominated for 'The Goodbye Girl' (Best Supporting Actress Oscar) aged 10.

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