While there are, undoubtedly, some tragic Corey Haim types building resumes as we speak, it would seem we’ve passed the era of child stardom all but guaranteeing personal and professional downfall. The somewhat terrifying Taylor Momsen notwithstanding, today’s crop of near-20 Disney Channel and Danimal-commercial veterans seems a surprisingly stable bunch, with names more destined for comparison with Jodie Foster than Jodie Sweetin. Dakota Fanning just wrapped her first period romance, AnnaSophia Robb has already logged a fact-based sports drama about an amputee, and Cameron Bright, as far as one can tell, hasn’t let his creepy-kid roots lead to college-age demons. In this age bracket, 19-year-old Josh Hutcherson occupies the top tier, a soulful, sleepy-eyed boy next door who’s coolly surfing the wave of gradation between family fare and all-grown-up material. His true breakout project, in fact, marked a thoroughly modern merger of the two.
After cutting his pearly whites in kiddie action-fantasy like Zathura and Bridge to Terabithia, Hutcherson put a rather confident stamp on the role of Laser, son of Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s lesbian couple in The Kids Are All Right. One gathers that it may have taken a director of Lisa Cholodenko’s pluck to draw out Hutcherson’s full capacity for character-building, but if you watch, say, the scene in which the actor and his on-screen sis, Mia Wasikowska, first encounter Mark Ruffalo’s scruffy sperm donor, Laser’s alternating interest, unease, and aggravation all seem to emanate from a very real and acutely controlled place, a place not often accessed by performers so young. And yet, Hutcherson is nonetheless a very youthful actor, free of any pretension that might make him seem implausible as just another regular teen. His stocky figure and cinderblock jawline have prompted casting directors to position him as a pint-sized weightlifter (RV) and all-around super-jock (The Kids Are All Right), but the physical traits have also aided in his believable boyishness, an outer virtue to match that inner, evolving range.
Such a mix is surely what landed Hutcherson the coveted role of Peeta Mellark, one troubled third of the dystopian love triangle in The Hunger Games, the film that will hopefully help The Twilight Saga fizzle faster than Bella and Edward’s chemistry. Hollywood’s newest YA-inspired cash cow, The Hunger Games is poised to make Hutcherson as big as Taylor Lautner, only this time, the level of fame should seem more earned than manufactured. Peeta is an unfussy baker’s son prone to bullheaded benevolence, the kind of character whose embodiment is well within Hutcherson’s proven skill set. Of The Hunger Games’s three lead actors, our subject is the most astutely cast, as Jennifer Lawrence, though supremely gifted, is riding on career buzz and Ree Dolly déjà vu, while Liam Hemsworth has yet to exhibit much beyond his hotness. Hutcherson seems ready to do with Peeta the very thing he did with Laser: grab the character and claim him as his own, so much so that few should open Suzanne Collins’s puppy-love-death-race tomes again without seeing his sturdy frame. The soon-to-be mega-blockbuster trilogy comes on the heels of Hutcherson’s other franchise, the Jules Verne-inspired Journey series, which just released the disposable, but hardly career-marring, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. The swapping of properties is perfectly in line with Hutcherson’s career trajectory—kids’ stuff supplanted by the next phase of development.