From gifted child star to one of the most unconventional yet daring actresses working today in indie films, Jena Malone has already cultivated a career that many of her peers would love to have. While she has dabbled into the world of TV movies and some mainstream fare as well as being a musician and artist in her own right. She’s also been one of the few actresses that likes to think outside the box while putting out performances no matter how big or small can get everyone to notice. While there is certainly more to come from in the coming years, the work she’s done in the past 15 years is truly remarkable. Here are some of these highlights.
1. Bastard Out of Carolina-Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright
Probably one of the best feature-film acting debuts for any actress, particularly for an actress that was only 10 years old during the making of Anjelica Huston’s adaptation of Dorothy Allison’s novel. In the role of a young girl living in 1950s rural South Carolina, Malone truly displays the emotional and mental torment of a child being abused by her stepfather while being forced to make her mother choose between a man and her child. It’s a very haunting yet entrancing performance that not many people could do as it’s definitely a hell of a debut performance by any actress with that much talent at a young age.
Malone’s performance as Mary, in the religious-satire teen comedy, is definitely a role that only she can bring. From this very innocent young teenager who had been raised in a world of Christianity, Malone adds a worldly sense of wonderment to his character who later sacrifices her virginity to save her boyfriend from being gay. What happens instead is that she becomes pregnant and is forced to deal with the hypocrisy she’s facing. The key scene in this transformation is where Mary stares at a big portrait of Jesus as she curses at him. There’s a bit of humor to Mary but also a liveliness to her once she becomes an outcast and joins a small band of oddballs in what is one of Malone’s finest moments.
3. Pride & Prejudice-Lydia Bennett
Having to be the only American to be in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s famed book but Malone manages to be an absolute scene-stealer as Lydia Bennett, the youngest of the five Bennett sisters. Malone’s performance has her making Lydia into this reckless yet immature young girl that wants to get the attention of officers while always doing the wrong things. Yet, Malone manages to make Lydia into someone that people can love because she’s kind of a bad girl. The best scene that exemplify Malone’s performance is when Lydia accidentally spills a secret to her older sister Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) about who paid for her marriage to Whickham. It is there that Malone manages to steal the scene from Knightley putting Elizabeth in her place as Malone then steals Knightley’s wine of glass and sips it. It’s in that moment where Malone owns Knightley by just one simple act.
4. Into the Wild-Carine McCandless
While it’s only a minor supporting role in which Malone only has 15-20 minutes of screen time as Christopher McCandless’ younger sister. Malone does carry a presence that is truly evocative as she also serves a narrator in the film in which Carine reflects on the struggles and turmoil of Christopher’s life. While a lot of her on-screen performance is mostly low-key in the way she observes what her parents are dealing with. It is in the narration where Malone ponders what her brother is dealing with as well as her parents’ struggle with his sudden disappearance.
5. Donnie Darko-Gretchen Ross
While it’s a role where Malone plays the love interest for the titular character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Malone does manage to give reasons for the Donnie Darko character to find some sort of solace and comfort over the things he’s dealing with as Gretchen is a young girl that is currently hiding from her father. There is also something otherworldly behind this young girl that is dealing with some issues as she ponders about a life where she and Donnie create something that could help a child only to be ruined by a comment from a young Seth Rogen.
6. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys-Margie Flynn
In Peter Care’s directorial debut about two young Catholic school boys growing up in the 1970s American South, Malone plays the love interest of one of the boys who becomes his muse in creating a character for a comic he and his friends are creating. Yet, Malone makes Margie Flynn a very complex love interest who shares a very dark secret about herself that leaves Emile Hirsch’s Francis unsure about his attraction towards her. Still, Malone makes Margie a character that is very sympathetic despite her actions which forces Francis to grow up a bit.
7. The Messenger-Kelly
Though it’s a very small role that has Malone appear for about 10-15 minutes of the film. It’s a performance that does leave a chilling impression for Ben Foster’s Will Montgomery character. She appears early in the film as a former girlfriend who greets Will home and then has sex with him while later telling him that she’s getting married. She isn’t seen again until very late when Will and Woody Harrelson’s Captain Tony Stone crash her engagement party where she is nearly afraid that Will might do something. While it’s a character that is really more of an emotional motivation for Will in how he’s dealing with his life as well as his own issues where’s later drawn to Samantha Morton. Malone’s performance is still mesmerizing as a young woman who still loves will but has a new life of her own and is trying to move on.
8. The Go-Getter-Joely
While The Messenger had Malone go nude for the very first time, Malone does tease a bit of nudity by showing a bit of butt-crack in a lively love scene with Lou Taylor Pucci in Martin Hynes’ 2007 road film The Go-Getter. Malone plays a quirky seductress with a wonderful fashion sense as she takes Pucci’s character to crazy places while he’s on the road trying to find his half-brother. While her character is this flighty yet selfish young woman who takes advantage of Pucci, she does manage to create a colorful impression that is unforgettable. One scene that is truly a joy to watch is where she along with Pucci and Zooey Deschanel recreate the famous dance scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande a Parte.
9. Ellen Foster-Ellen Hammond Foster
While it’s not much a stretch in comparison to her role in Bastard Out of Carolina, Malone does manage to seize the moment for this TV drama about a young girl who is shifted from various homes following her mother’s death. While Malone does get to express more enthusiasm and joy into her character, she also balances it with the sense of anguish for the way she’s been treated by her extended family. Malone brings a lot more gravitas to a project that is essentially a typical made-for-TV melodrama as it’s a very haunting yet enchanting performance.
10. Cheaters-Jolie Fitch
While she is part of an ensemble that is led by Jeff Daniels as her teacher, Malone stands out once again as the unofficial leader of an academic decathlon team. Based on a true scandal about a decathlon team from Chicago that got caught cheating, Malone’s character plays one of the few who cares about getting an education and hopefully get something out of it. There is an energy to her character as she gets herself out there while being just a young teen with an attitude and real sense of understanding about how the world works.
There’s a lot that Jena Malone has done so far for nearly 20 years dating back to the time she appeared as a young girl in Santa’s lap at an episode of Roseanne back in 1991. While she’s been in TV programs, TV movies, music videos, and all sorts of films. She’s managed to cultivate a career that is still flourishing no matter what she’s doing.
From her work on TV films and specials, there are projects that really showcase her talents such as Hidden in America where she plays a sick child suffering from malnutrition as her father tries to find a job despite the help of the doctor who is checking up on her. Another made for TV movie that features Malone in an outstanding performance is The Ballad of Lucy Whipple where Malone plays a young girl trying to find her place during the California Gold Rush as she gets to share the screen with Glenn Close playing her mother.
Malone has also managed to work with some of the top directors in film such as Robert Zemeckis, Sam Raimi, and the late Anthony Minghella where she always stand out in a role no matter how small it is. While Robert Zemeckis’ Contact is a film that often gets derided for its cheesy ending, Malone manages to shine as a younger version of Jodie Foster’s Ellie character. In Sam Raimi’s For the Love of the Game, Malone once again stands out as Kelly Preston’s daughter as she manages to have a great scene where she is on a plane with Kevin Costner as she reveals all of her issues with her mother while Costner listens and tries to understand what she’s going through.
The other big filmmaker Malone worked on is in Anthony Minghella’s Civil War epic Cold Mountain where she has a very small role as a Ferry Girl who helps Jude Law and Philip Seymour Hoffman get across the river. It’s a wonderful role though she unfortunately gets shot point blank. Yet, it proves that is willing to play dead for a movie. Another very small part Malone did for a revered filmmaker is do English dubbing for Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle where she only appears briefly a friend of the film’s protagonist early in the film.
While it is clear that Malone will play very small roles for big directors for just to work with them. It adds to her willingness to standout as she is also a very eccentric actress that is willing to take on very weird parts or do experimental films. Whether it’s playing a strange young woman with bleach-blonde hair in Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack & Rose, be Billy Bob Thornton’s rebellious Gothic daughter in The Badge, or make a cameo for Joe Wright’s The Soloist as a cheery lab technician where she has a scene with Robert Downey Jr. She is always going to find some way to make an impression.
Adding to her refusal to be pegged by anyone is her choices to appear in the kind of films she does as an actress. Whether it’s in indies like American Girl and The United States of Leland to more family-driven dramas like Stepmom and Life as a House. While both American Girl and The United States of Leland aren’t very good films since the former is a very poor drama about a girl and her family visiting her convicted father while the latter is about a young man killing a mentally-challenged kid. Malone does usually find some way to pull out a performance that saves the film from being a disaster as in The United States of Leland, she gets to play Ryan Gosling’s drug-addicted girlfriend who later leaves him as she’s falling apart.
For the family dramas like Life as a House and Stepmom, which are two very different movies. Malone shows the range that she can bring as in Life as a House, she can bring an enthusiasm as well as a sexiness as she shares the shower with Hayden Christensen and manages to kiss Kevin Kline all at once. In Stepmom, she gets to be in a film with Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, and Ed Harris as she has this great scene where she reacts to Sarandon’s news that she has cancer as she is upset as Harris walks after her to come back down. Malone then stares at him telling him his faults for the way he walked on Sarandon for Roberts.
While Malone does often go to indie films to either support an emerging filmmaker or to play a role that can stretch her craft as an actress. Malone is also willing to take on studio projects such as the recent Zack Snyder action-adventure film Sucker Punch. While it’s not a great film that has a very weak story, overwhelming visual effects, and not a lot of strong characters. Malone manages to keep the film from being a disaster as the relationship she has Abbie Cornish as her sister really bring in a bit of depth to the movie. Then there’s the horror film in The Ruins where it’s a different sort of horror film that’s more psychological than gimmick-driven. Yet, Malone manages to bring in what is expected in the genre while not being afraid to be un-likeable or to do something foolish.
Malone is also an avid music fan as she is also an artist herself whether it’s in solo project or in a more experimental side project such the Shoe with Lem Jay Ignacio. For the music videos she appears in, she definitely has a diverse taste whether its being the muse in Harper Simon’s Berkeley Girl, play a criminal with a bunch of celebrity cameos in the video for I Think Bad Thoughts by Canadian hard rock band Danko Jones, as a kid catching a ball in Michael Jackson's Childhood or play a seductress in Dirty Vegas’ Electric Love video.
While there is definitely more to come from Malone in 2012 with roles such as playing Carson McCullers in the bio-pic Lonely Hunters, a modern version of A Doll’s House, and other various roles in indie and TV project such as an upcoming story about the Hatfields and the McCoys. She’s already done an incredible job in creating a resume that is going to be more interesting with more great roles to come. In reality, she’s just getting warmed up. So to Miss Jena Malone, happy 27th Birthday and I will definitely put my ass in the seat for whatever you do (unless it’s a bad movie by some hack filmmaker).
© thevoid99 2011
Great post Steven. Never realized your muse has been in so many movies although I did notice her in small roles such as in Cold Mountain and The Messenger to go with her most prominent performance in Donnie Darko.
Ah, thanks for reading my list. She's done a lot and there's also projects that I haven't seen that she's done. And she's got about a bunch of films coming for 2012. Four of which might play at Sundance which gives me more reason for wanting to go more than ever.
Plus, I finally finished my script called Ugly last night that I've spent months working on just for her. Holla if you to check it out.
Big ups to her as Kelly in The Messenger! I also remember seeing her as a child/teenager in a movie set in the South about befriending a black man and her female guardian being so against it. Can't remember the title.
@Okinawaassault-I'm glad someone else here appreciated her work in The Messenger. What I love about her is that she'll do something very small and make it absolutely memorable.
As for the other movie you mentioned, it's called Hope and that's one of the TV movies that I haven't seen because it's rarely on TV. I heard she got nominated for a Golden Globe for that part. I hope she gets more recognition soon. Shit, I hope to work with her as I have a script finish that I wrote just for her.
Great post by you, Steven but there's one thing i have to say about Sucker Punch that is you said the movie wasn't that good. Well i liked the movie if you comprehend the plot behind it. And yes Jena(Rocket) was by far the best actress of the entire movie.
@Ernest-It wasn't that Sucker Punch had a plot that could've worked but it was badly directed where there was so much more that could've done. If it was in the vision of someone like Terry Gilliam or Guillermo del Toro, it would be a far more different film with more depth to those characters. Snyder just wishes he can be like Terry Gilliam.
Well, you have a thing there cause i guess the message wasn't clear enough to the audience because of the overwhelming action scenes and beautiful soundtrack. The whole problem of this movie is that it's NOT a popcornmovie. You have to really pay attention to the story otherwise you will be confused and walk out thinking what about the asylum and the brothel. But the story is all about Sweet Pea, the other girls i think are not real characters. What's your opinion on that?
@Ernest Schoenmakers-There's a link to my review in that list where I stated everything that I think was wrong about the film. The way it was told I think didn't really work because it was too confusing and there wasn't really any depth to the twist. It's essentially style over substance.
Thanks for commenting on SP and i read your link to your review and i must say that i agree with you. Also about the acting, Jena and Abbie were the best of all the young girls. I saw in an earlier comment that you wrote a script just for Jena Malone. I must say that's great to do this for her. Did you already get in contact with Jena about this script?
@Ernest schoenmakers-I haven't because of financial reasons and other things as I'm working on other things and haven't had the time to do any copyrighting and such.
Hello again, i was wondering about the progress on the script you're making for Jena and did you now get in contact with her?
@Ernest schoenmakers-I haven't had the time to copyright while the other script I'm working on is in limbo due to other things. I haven't contacted her because I don't know her address nor phone number.
I'm so glad you linked this in your recent post. Excellent list! I definitely agree with Bastard being at the top. Even in her smallest roles, she always offers so much.
@Brittani-I'm glad there's another Jena fan here. She is the best.
I'm also a huge fan of Jena and i watched Mockingjay p1 on Jena Malone's birthday and when her 4 secs scene appeared on screen i shouted Happy Birthday Jena and nobody reacted, how lame. But this was a letdown for me that they sipped the Capitol scenes and this shortage of screen time of my queen. What do u think of it?
@ernest schoenmakers-I haven't seen the film and I'm not wasting my time or money to see Jena for a few seconds when I know she has a more prominent role in the next film. I'll just wait till the 2nd part comes out.
I know it's ridiculous, this is doing injustice to Jena cause she's such a talented actress but underrated by Hollywood. I'm gonna see also Part 2 but i have to wait another year. I'm pissed a little. What i'm really looking forward to is Inherent Vice, did u see the trailer?
@Ernest Schoenmakers-I'm definitely going to see Inherent Vice as I am a big P.T. Anderson fan.
This whole thing about splitting a book into two parts is just capitalist bullshit. I want no part of that.
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