From “Somewhere” To “The Girl From Plainville,” Here Are The 16 Definitive Elle Fanning Performances

Kathy Hoang/BuzzFeed, Everett Collection: Gareth Gatrell/Hulu, A24, Franco Biciocchi/Focus Features, Nicola Dove/A24, Steve Dietl/Hulu, Broad Green Pictures, Paramount

Warning: Some of these titles contain mentions of suicide (in particular, 14 and 16).

In the past two weeks, I have watched nearly every Elle Fanning vehicle. And I have come to a not-so-shocking conclusion: She is good in absolutely everything. The girl simply does not miss. Do some movies that she stars in miss? Sure. But Elle as a performer? Never. She always goes for it — and whether she’s an empress, a princess, a possible murderer, American, English, German, or Russian, she always has the range to pull it off.

It’s odd to call someone who’s been acting since she was 2 (then in the shadow of her older sister, Dakota) a “secret,” but after bingeing her work, I am convinced she is secretly the best actor of her generation. Fanning possesses the unique ability to pull off precociousness endearingly, embodying the wisdom of a woman twice her age.

Directors have clearly identified this ageless quality to her performances as well, casting her in a handful of period pieces that require she toe the line of modernity and 18th/19th-century traditionalism. You believe her in a corset or as a ’70s flower child just as much as you do plopped in the 2010s with a Sidekick glued to her hand.

In Fanning’s most recent starring role in the Hulu limited seriesThe Girl From Plainville, she returns to period work (albeit a period much fresher in our minds), depicting Michelle Carter in the real-life “texting-suicide case” of 2014. Requiring a notable physical transformation, flashback work, and the mining of heavy material, in some ways, this is the perfect showcase of Fanning’s skillset as an actor thus far. 

This had me itching to retrace the prolific 24-year-old’s journey up to this point. Below, I’ve rounded up a list of essential Fanning roles that help us make sense of this moment in her career.

1. Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)

Think Film / Courtesy Everett Collection

To my mind (and I assume many others) Phoebe in Wonderland was the film that brought Elle Fanning out of the shadows of her older sister Dakota’s career and cemented her as an actor in her own right. It can be challenging for any actor, let alone a 9-year-old, to hold their own against award-winning actors like Patricia Clarkson and Felicity Huffman. However, Elle not only holds her own, but she elevates the material (Elle elevating material will be a real through-line of this list). In Phoebe in Wonderland, she plays a girl with Tourette syndrome who becomes entranced with Alice in Wonderland and her school’s production of it. Elle infuses the role of Phoebe with poise and wisdom, a role that could have easily been played as your run-of-the-mill precocious child in a lesser actor’s hands.  

As of 4/13, Phoebe in Wonderland is tragically not available to stream, rent, or buy. But leaving Phoebe off this list would be a second tragedy, so it stays. 

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the story of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) aging backward. So, the first time he meets the love of his life, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), he appears to be an old man but is actually the same age as her (at age 7, played by Fanning). While this movie 100% belongs to Pitt and Blanchett, Button has to fall in love with Daisy’s Elle before Cate’s. (At 9 years old, this is Elle’s second time working with Pitt and Blanchett — sorry to the Babel-heads out there, as it didn’t make the cut.) Button needs to be enchanted by Daisy when she’s a child, and he is. It’s not like Jacob and Renesmee, I swear — no creepy imprinting! While researching, I learned they looped Blanchett’s voice for Daisy throughout the film, but Fanning’s wide-eyed acceptance of Button sets Daisy on her path to love and heartbreak.

Watch it on Prime Video

3. Somewhere (2010)

Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection

A popular TikTok goes, “The girls who girl, girl. The girls who girln’t, gorn’t.” Fanning and Sofia Coppola both girl. (If you get this, I’m sorry. If you don’t, I’m sorry too.) The point is that the pairing makes complete sense. Coppola has a talent for picking young starlets (i.e., Kirsten Dunst) and knowing what to do with them. Coppola lets Fanning be intelligent and curious, but she also allows her to be silly. Fanning’s laugh is contagious, and Coppola doesn’t shy away from letting Elle be Elle. She dedicates three minutes of the film to Elle’s ice skating routine, in what finally makes her dad (Stephen Dorff) look up from his phone and truly see his daughter. Elle trained for three months to properly pull off the ice skating routine set to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool” herself, and she did. It is graceful and poignant, just like the rest of her performance.

Rent it on Prime Video.

4. Super 8 (2011)

Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

This role could have been nothing more than a device to move the boys’ storylines along, but that is simply not the Elle way. Nonetheless, for the first few minutes, I was worried that that was exactly what I was going to get: the perfect 12-year-old dream girl for the boys to crush on. Alice (Fanning) is that, but she’s also so much more. In the 1970s, a group of nerdy middle school boys ask Alice to be in their movie, filmed on a super 8 camera. Super 8 has fun monsters and a sci-fi element, but the film’s heart is two kids, Alice and Joe (Joel Courtney), from broken families finding solace in each other. Elle’s performance mesmerizes as she watches a home movie of Joe’s recently deceased mom (played by Caitriona Balfe, in her first screen credit). Alice starts to cry, displaying so many emotions on her face, longing for a mother, and feeling guilt about Joe’s mother’s death. Then when she acts in the boys’ movie, she completely switches up her style. She’s stiffer, a little less polished. She goes from Elle playing Alice to Elle playing Alice playing the best 12-year-old actor in their class. The way she’s able to flip between the two is remarkable. 

Watch it on HBO Max.

5. Ginger & Rosa (2012)

A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection

We’re used to seeing twentysomethings sit at desks in high school classrooms. What we’re less familiar with is a younger actor playing an older one. In Ginger & Rosa, a 13-year-old Fanning plays a 17-year-old Ginger. Fanning’s youth adds an extra punch; similar to the girls in Thirteen being 13, there are moments of uneasiness around her actions — is she old enough to be getting drunk and kissing boys? When her best friend Rosa, played by Alice Englert (daughter of recent Best Director Oscar winner Jane Campion, who was 18 in real life), has an affair with Ginger’s father, the pain on Fanning’s face is pure. She’s just a girl. She can’t and shouldn’t be dealing with this. In the final scene, when Ginger finally lets all of her feelings pour out, I went from thinking of Fanning as a tremendous child actor to a true talent. Apropos of nothing, Christina Hendricks, who plays Ginger’s mother, makes some wild English accent choices. Just phenomenal stuff!

Watch it on Prime Video.

6. Maleficent (2014) & Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

Walt Disney Co. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Maleficent and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are so perfectly cast that I am once again mad that there is no Best Casting award at the Oscars. But I digress. Elle is a perfect Disney princess. Yes, she has the cartoon doe eyes and perfect golden curls. But more importantly, she’s a smart, spunky, and adventurous 21st-century update. This is not her most dramatic or comedic performance, but she’s dazzling and the heart of the films. Fanning and Angelina Jolie have such fantastic chemistry that their love being the important one totally works. Princes may come and go, but vengeful fairies last forever. To be 16 (and then 21) and the co-lead of a Disney tentpole must be a lot of pressure, and as always, she knocks it out of the park, and then does it again. Fun Fact: Ella Purnell, aka Queen Bee Teen Jackie of Yellowjackets fame, played Teen Maleficent. The more you know! 

Rent Maleficent on Prime Video. Watch Maleficent: Mistress of Evil on Disney+.

7. Trumbo (2015)

Samuel Goldwyn Films / Courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Ahh, yes, there comes a time in every young starlet’s life where she must play the teenage daughter with a turbulent relationship with her dad in an awards-buzzy film. Do not get me wrong. I am not putting these roles down. I think this is an essential role for Elle because it is her first time playing a real person (something she would go on to do very well). Here we see her play Trumbo’s daughter from ages 13 to 30, a fiercely loyal daughter and someone who pays attention to everything. It’s not the showiest performance on the list. There is no hysterical crying. Instead, here she listens and observes the world around her. She’s tough. She’s cool. She’s smart. It works. 

Watch it on Prime Video

8. The Neon Demon (2016)

Broad Green Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Halfway through watching The Neon Demon, I got hungry, so I made myself popcorn. By the end of the film, the popcorn sat untouched, and I seriously contemplated whether I would ever eat or sleep again. A warning to all: This film is not for the faint of heart. But my girl Elle is going for it! And I respect it! When this movie was filmed, Elle was 16, playing a 16-year-old orphan, maybe, who moves to LA to become a model. At times, it is challenging to wrap your head around the fact that she filmed this at 16. The situations with men and women are uncomfortable at any age, but especially for an actual child. There is a straight-up reference to Lolita. It has necrophilia, copious amounts of blood, and the vilest throw-up scene I’ve ever watched. When it premiered at Cannes, it was reported that some of the crowd booed, and some of the crowd cheered, which seems right to me. If you’re looking for a disturbingly wild ride, this is it.

Watch it on Prime Video.

9. 20th Century Women (2016)

A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection

After rewatching 20th Century Women, my main takeaway is that I’d very much like Elle in a Greta Gerwig project. I think she’d know how to bottle Elle’s effervescence. Something 20th Century Women does very well. I believe this is Elle’s best ensemble film (paired with Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and Lucas Jade Zumann). They all have their individual moments to shine, but it’s movie magic when the cast is together. In one stand-out scene between Julie (Fanning) and Dorothea (Bening), they have a cigarette in Dorothea’s car, and Julie tells Dorothea she’s looking for love with inappropriate men. While Julie seems like another precocious teenager at first, we learn she’s already been through a lot. To her, the house where the other four live together is a place of safety. We see the three leading ladies in very different stages of their life — Elle’s Julie, a girl on the precipice of adulthood, caught between her childlike friendship with Jamie (Zumann) and the reality of her world. She’s all at once running to and away from adulthood. 

Watch it on Prime Video.

10. The Beguiled (2017)

Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collect

What did I say about the girls who girl! Let Elle be mean! Let her be horny and nasty — it’s fun! Indeed, her second film with Sofia Coppola is undoubtedly not her biggest performance on the list, but her subdued looks are what make it work. In The Beguiled, she plays a teenage school girl at a girl’s school in Virginia toward the end of the Civil War. For reasons of, well, war, there are only five girls left at the school, and when one of the younger girls finds a wounded Union Corporal (Colin Farrell) and brings him back to the school, all hell breaks loose. All the girls want a piece of him, including the teachers, played by Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst. It’s a battle for his love and affection. Watching Fanning, Kidman, and Dunst vie for one man’s attention, not through shouting and fighting but by jewelry, whispers, and subtly exposed shoulders, is a treat. Coppola knows how to weaponize Elle’s powerful smile. It doesn’t come out often in the film, but when it does, it’s to get Elle precisely what she wants — to win.

Watch it on Netflix.

11. Mary Shelley (2017)

IFC Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

Surely when you think of the mother of Gothic novels, you think of sunshine personified, Elle Fanning, right? This is certainly an odd pairing. Could they not have given her a dark brown wig? Mary Shelley was only 17 in real life when she wrote Frankenstein. Likewise, Elle was only 17 when she shot the movie. Elle brings her trademark youth and intelligence to the character of Mary, as you need to realize how unbelievable it is that Mary wrote Frankenstein at such a young age. There’s a fire and intensity behind Elle’s eyes. I think Mary would have looked the same. At times I wished the film went campier, and at times I wanted it to be more serious. It kind of just exists somewhere in between. Her performance, despite that, does work. In full transparency, I had seen all of The Great before watching this film. So it was a bit of a thrill while watching to see traces of what Elle would later bring to Catherine. Mary Shelley is a good first draft for Fanning’s current masterpiece, The Great

Rent it on Prime Video.

12. I Think We’re Alone Now (2018)

Momentum Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

There aren’t a lot of actors that can handle being the only one onscreen for roughly 95% of a movie. And in this film, that roughly 95% is solely Fanning and Peter Dinklage, sometimes together, sometimes alone. Del (Peter Dinklage) thinks he’s the last person alive after something wipes out the entire population on a random Tuesday afternoon. Then he finds Fanning’s character and realizes he’s not alone. Despite not wanting her around at first, he does get used to her company, and the two form a real bond. But of course, Elle has a secret. (I won’t spoil the mystery because there is an act three twist.) If it wasn’t clear enough that Elle can carry a film, she proves it with an exclamation point in this one.

Rent it on Prime Video.

13. Teen Spirit (2018)

Bleecker Street Media / courtesy Everett Collection

LET ELLE FANNING SING! Did you guys know she could sing? I did not. I can’t believe Disney had a little songbird on their hands and didn’t give her at least a credit song or lullaby in Maleficent. Here she makes a movie with a somewhat uneven script (I have many questions about the singing contest) work as best as possible. Her performance as a shy girl turned pop star works because of Elle’s x-factor; you can’t look away when she’s onstage. A few films on the list know how to capture Elle’s natural “it-girl” coolness and use it to enhance a character, and here they really bottle it up. So while I have logistical questions, I don’t care because her performance proves she’s a star in and out of this movie. 

Watch it on Hulu.

14. All the Bright Places (2020)

Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection

Mentions of suicide following.

It doesn’t feel totally right to call a movie about death and suicide a “sweet” movie, but All the Bright Places certainly has its lovely moments of tenderness that work so well because of the chemistry of the two leads. In this film, we see Elle take on a new role. (Sure it veers into manic-pixie-dream-girl land, and I will admit to laughing at her name being Violet. What’s with the color names of the YA heroines?) There’s a gentle softness to Elle’s performance and how she’s trying her hardest to handle her grief — at times momentarily forgetting and having a good time, and at times struck with sadness all over again. This performance feels lived in, and the relationship between Violet and Theodore Finch (Justice Smith), however ill-fated it might be, has that euphoric spark of first love. 

Watch it on Netflix.

15. The Great (2020– )

Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection

After watching many Elle Fanning performances, I must admit that The Great is absolutely my favorite. I feel, finally, that someone knew how to take everything that makes her so immensely watchable and bottle it up in one role. In The Great, she plays Catherine the Great, Empress to All of Russia, in what they call an “occasionally true story.” As Catherine, Elle gets to do all the things she’s, pun intended, great at — she gets to be rugged and powerful, yet waif-like and innocent, she gets men to fall at her feet with a mere glance, and she knows how to work a corset and beautiful gown. It’s also an ensemble comedy, although there’s no doubt she’s a lead. As we’ve established, Elle is great in an ensemble; she knows how to play off the other characters elevating both her and their performances. Catherine does good things and does terrible things, and I find myself rooting for her all the same. I’m under her command as well. 

Watch it on Hulu.

16. The Girl From Plainville (2022)

Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection

InThe Girl From Plainville, we see how Elle magically captures everything she’s learned from 20-plus years of performances and how she weaves them all seamlessly together — intensity from The Neon Demon, grief from All the Bright Places, putting on a front from Teen Sprit, playing a real person from Trumbo, and more. It’s dazzling to watch all the pieces come together. 

I remembered the story happening in real time and thought I knew it all — Michelle Carter texts her boyfriend, encouraging him to die by suicide — but there is, of course, much more to the story. As Carter, Elle plays a troubled girl with a big Glee obsession, cosplaying as an ordinary high schooler. (There is an amazing Lea Michele/Rachel Berry reveal shot in the pilot that made me gasp.) She memorizes monologues and mimics feelings. There’s an unease with how good Elle’s performance is; you never know if or when Carter’s being sincere. Except for her texts, she never outwardly says anything that unusual. Her actions mostly seem rational. Yet there’s an awkward tension in how she speaks to her friends and family. While grieving her boyfriend’s death, her friends come over, and she goes from hysterically crying to manically wanting to pick out the perfect thing to wear to his funeral. It’s a quick moment of drastically changing emotions. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to look nice for a funeral. Worrying about the right thing to wear in a way could be sweet, a sign of how much she cares, but the subtext of her performance lets you know something is way off.

Watch it on Hulu.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.orgThe Trevor Project, which provides help and suicide-prevention resources for LGBTQ youth, is 1-866-488-7386. You can also text TALK to 741741 for free, anonymous 24/7 crisis support in the US and UK from the Crisis Text Line.

We hope you love the shows and movies we recommend! Just so you know, BuzzFeed may collect a share of revenue or other compensation from the links on this page. Oh and FYI: Platform, prices, and other availability details are accurate as of time of posting.