It’s not child’s play, stealing scenes from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.

But in “True Grit,” 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld not only holds her own against those seasoned performers, she establishes herself as one of a handful of pint-sized actors who this year gave Oscar-worthy performances.

In the Coen brothers’ new screen adaptation of Charles Portis’ picaresque novel from 1968, Steinfeld is a force to be reckoned with. She has the plum role of Mattie Ross, a pigtailed angel of vengeance bent on tracking down and killing the no-good felon who gunned down her father and made off with his horse and money.

With an unshakeable faith in her Protestant ethic and her own righteousness, Mattie gets to work hiring trigger-happy, one-eyed U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges, reprising the role played by John Wayne in the original 1969 film) and striking a deal with an egocentric Texas Ranger (Damon). This steely-eyed girl buffaloes a horse trader (leaving the man a quivering wreck), packs her papa’s pistol (it’s so heavy she can hardly lift it), fords a river and treks through the Indian territory of the 1870s.

“What attracted me to Mattie was the description of the character in the book,” Hailee said. “She has such a drive. That’s really how I related to her. She has this goal, and she’s not going to sleep at night until she reaches it.”

Kids rarely take home Oscars. After all, most actors work their entire lives to acquire the skills that might lead to a nomination. Academy Award voters tend to bestow the honors on those who have toiled long and hard to earn them — not some young pony fresh out of the gate.

Still, this year has seen a slew of terrific performances by young people.

We can start with Hailee’s work in “True Grit.” The performance of this 14-year-old anchors the movie. But there are other notable performances:

Chloe Grace Moretz, 13, gave us two killer characters this year: a foul-mouthed, violence-loving caped vigilante in “Kick-Ass” and an ageless vampire trapped in a child’s body in “Let Me In.”

Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee, 14, followed his excellent work in last year’s “The Road” with an equally impressive turn in “Let Me In” as a bullied adolescent with a supernatural friend.

Elle Fanning, 12 (little sister of Dakota), provided the soul and sanity missing from the life of her superstar actor father (Stephen Dorff) in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere.”

Somewhat older but still an adolescent is Jennifer Lawrence, only 18 when she played an Ozarks teen searching for her meth-cooking father in “Winter’s Bone.” She’s a likely Oscar nominee.

As for Hailee, she declared to her parents at age 8 that she was going to be in movies and television.

“My cousin was doing commercials at the time, and to watch TV and see my cousin come up was huge for me. It made it seem possible that I could do it, too.”

But her parents — Dad is a personal trainer, Mom an interior designer in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks — weren’t about to throw their youngest child into Hollywood’s voracious maw.

“Before I could go out for even one audition my mom made me study acting for a full year. She wanted to make sure I’d stay with it.”

Not only did Hailee stay with it, she began getting work as soon as her year of training was up. Nothing too impressive — several short films, a couple of TV appearances — but they allowed the girl to get a handle on this acting business. She learned about research and getting in touch with her emotions.

But the role of Mattie almost got away from her. She auditioned late in the process.

“I heard about ‘True Grit’ through my mom’s cousin, whose daughter is acting as well. We kind of called my agent and asked if I could get in on it.”

Luckily for Hailee, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen hadn’t yet found the right young actress despite reportedly considering nearly 15,000 candidates.

To prepare for her audition, Hailee spent a weekend reading the novel and watching the John Wayne movie — the only time she’s seen it. That gave her an idea of the idiosyncratic language Portis put in his characters’ mouths, a bracing blend of florid oration and clipped American vernacular.

“When I showed up they gave me 25 pages of script. I read with Jeff (Bridges) and Barry (Pepper, who plays the leader of an outlaw band).”

Hailee’s work blew away the Coens.

“It was apparent from the very beginning that Hailee was going to have no problem with the language,” Joel Coen told The New York Times. “We only cast her three or four weeks before we started shooting the movie, and we had been looking for a long time. But that was a crucial — maybe the crucial — aspect of making the film.”

Hailee auditioned on a Saturday. She learned she had landed the role on Tuesday. Within a month, Hailee, then 13, was riding a pony through a remote part of New Mexico. It helped that she already knew how to ride.

Since completing filming early this year, Hailee has led the life of a normal eighth-grader — though for a while it was hard to shake the experience.

“Mattie’s accent and way of talking stuck with me for a month or so. That was weird. But it’s gone now.”

She continues to audition, but no big gigs have come her way. With the release of “True Grit,” though, one suspects that’s about to change.


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