Elle Fanning might be actress Dakota Fanning’s younger sister, but it’s safe to say the Fanning sisters have enjoyed the spotlight equally. Elle made her cinematic debut in the 2001 movie I Am Sam playing the younger version of her sister’s character, and in 2022, the two sisters will reunite for the upcoming Mélanie Laurent movie The Nightingale. The young Fanning’s career has been eclectic so far, showing a curated taste for playing historical figures like Mary Shelley and Catherine the Great, as well as young women coming of age during difficult times.
From indie films to blockbusters, Fanning has shown a keen mastery of acting, demonstrating that she cannot be confined to one type of character. It’s this skill that led her to be named the youngest juror at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival—she was only twenty-one years old when selected to be a part of the jury and was the youngest in the history of the festival. She grew up from being a child actress to a seasoned veteran in the industry, and she’s still got an entire career ahead of her. Until then, here are her best performances.
8 The Neon Demon
Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon stars Fanning as Jesse, a sixteen-year-old model who moves from Georgia to Los Angeles after her parent’s death. Her dream is to become a successful model, but as she progresses through the fashion industry, the movie transitions from a coming-of-age success story into a psychological horror. Fanning looks ethereal as Jesse, embodying her youthfulness and greed as she tries to fight her way to the top. The Neon Demon is seductive in its visuals, but with a lackluster storyline and execution, it fails to captivate. Fanning, however, does succeed.
7 A Rainy Day in New York
Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York was shelved for several years due to the director’s scandal, and perhaps that was a blessing in disguise. A Rainy Day in New York embodies Allen’s style of filmmaking and his typical stories, thus not doing justice for his women characters. Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) is depicted as an airhead, and is sexualized and demeaned by the men around her, including her boyfriend Gatsby (Timothee Chalamet). While Fanning’s character is particularly unlikeable throughout the movie and set up to fail in the viewer’s eye, she portrays this character well.
6 20th Century Women
20th Century Women features an all-star trio of Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, and Annette Bening in the lead roles. In 1970s California, Julie Hamlin (Fanning) is seventeen and best friends with Jamie Fields. The movie focuses on women’s experiences dealing with sexuality, divorce, cancer, and raising a son alone. Julie doesn’t want to sleep with her best friend, yet, at seventeen, she’s had quite a bit of experience exploring her sexuality. Fanning’s performance as Julie is well-done, adding to the overall stellar acting found in the film.
5 Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley was Saudi Arabia’s first woman director Haifaa al-Mansour’s debut in the English language. The movie is a biopic about the writer Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning), and it tracks her tumultuous relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). He’s already married, though, and they engage in an affair, elope, and struggle through their new relationship. Fanning brings particular energy to her role as Mary; perhaps it’s because she was roughly about the same age as Mary, but she has this old soul energy merging with the creative youthfulness of the writer.
4 How to Talk to Girls at Parties
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is an adaptation of a 2005 Neil Gaiman short story. In 1970s England, a young comic book artist (Alex Sharp) stumbles across a group of aliens from another planet. Naturally, he falls in love with one of them (Elle Fanning). It grapples with themes of conforming to society and finding who you are as an individual under the context of the seventies punk scene in London. While the film is a little misguided in its approach and overall ambitions, it’s still quite fun to watch.
3 Super 8
Released in 2011, Super 8 was a smash hit and brought Elle Fanning into the mainstream consciousness. Super 8 is a science fiction film set in the late seventies, and it follows a group of friends trying to make a Super 8 movie when mysterious forces unleash onto their town. Emotional and nostalgic, Super 8 plays several tunes, whether it’s one of tragedy or youthfulness. Fanning plays Alice, one of the children who are abducted.
2 The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola returned in 2017 with an update to Clint Eastwood’s 1971 The Beguiled. Coppola’s edition of The Beguiled is humid and heavy, holding the weight of the American South during the Civil War. A wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) stumbles upon a school for girls in Virginia, but when his lust begins to take over, the women find that they need to defend themselves from this new threat. These women flip the narrative of what women could and couldn’t be during this era. The Beguiled is a slow burn, and Fanning’s character, Alicia, plays the teenage temptress.
1 The Great
Hulu’s The Great is spectacular, a visual feast ridden with jokes that are actually pretty funny. Fanning plays Catherine the Great, who has just arrived at the Russian royal court to marry her husband Peter. While the show isn’t exactly historically accurate, it entertainingly parodies history. Whether it’s plotting a revolution against her husband, shouting “Huzzah” to the court, or going on a rendezvous with her love, Fanning’s Catherine exudes confidence in her ability to navigate life in Russia. The show’s appeal has led it to acclaim and three seasons.
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