Youth is served in awards competitions
AH, to be young and in love on-screen.

Or young and in grief, in guilt, in the family way, in search of life's meaning.

Basically, it's the young part that counts. A preponderance of actors and actresses under the age of 25 have stood out this year at the cineplexes and in the awards races thus far.

The Golden Globes have nominated Saoirse Ronan (age 13) for her supporting role in "Atonement," while that film's Keira Knightley (22), "Hairspray's" Nikki Blonsky (19) and "Juno's" Ellen Page (20) were also named for their leading roles.

The Independent Spirit Awards also have nominated Page, and the group's supporting acting nods include Anna Kendrick (22) for her work in "Rocket Science" and Marcus Carl Franklin (14) for "I'm Not There."

The Broadcast Film Critics Assn. nominated Emile Hirsch (22) for a Critics' Choice Award for his role in "Into the Wild." They also gave Page a nod.

The Screen Actors Guild nominated both as well, in addition to the cast of "Hairspray" -- of which five of the 13 actors are younger than 25. Other critically acclaimed performances came from Paul Dano (23) for "There Will Be Blood" and Michael Cera (19) for "Juno."

But how unusual is this concentration of youth? Like last year's media celebration of Helen Mirren as a shining example of the return of women of a certain age to the big screen, this trend may be less than the sum of its young parts.

Talented young actors have been integral to great movies since the beginning of the industry. But nowadays they actually tend to get short shrift.

Time was, there were so many child stars that the Academy Awards used to single out impressive performances with special Oscars. A dozen such awards were handed out over the years between 1934 and 1960, to such performers as Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. A miniature one was created for Margaret O'Brien, outstanding child actress of 1944.

After those awards ended, the youngest actors saw fewer chances to head to the podium. And in recent years, seeing a teenager up against venerated and veteran actors in their categories seems to cause a stir. In 2004, Bill Maher's "New Rules" included a response to Keisha Castle-Hughes' nomination, at age 13, for her splendid work in "Whale Rider."

"Children can't be Oscar nominees," he said on his HBO show "Real Time With Bill Maher," adding, "watching actors like [Diane] Keaton and [Jack] Nicholson bring it to a new level late in their careers tells me it's wrong to give it to a kid. For a child actor, it's not the same kind of achievement. They're just sad little puppets who want to be loved and do whatever they're told."

Sean Astin, a guest on the show, rebutted by pointing out that his mother, Patty Duke Astin, won an Oscar at age 16 for her supporting role in "The Miracle Worker" in 1962.

Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University, dismisses any notion of a new trend of young talent, "but what makes us notice them this year is that a lot of these people, with the exception of Keira Knightley, are newcomers," she said. "So, suddenly a lot of people are saying, 'Ellen Page, who is that?' "

Basinger, author most recently of "The Star Machine," pointed out that most of the blockbuster movies with traditional box office stars -- "Sweeney Todd," "I Am Legend," "Charlie Wilson's War" -- were held back until the end of the year, allowing the smaller movies to get more attention than usual.

"So we are discovering a lot of people that we might not have noticed before."

And according to Trevor Groth, senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival and artistic director of the CineVegas Film Festival, these relative newcomers don't stay new for long.

"I think with the selling of young actors as commodities in magazines, on television shows and online, they're becoming household names in a much shorter time," which in turn adds to their award cachet, he said.

At film festivals, he added, "you see independent films made by young people telling their stories and, inevitably, there's some brand new faces telling these fresh stories, so we see a plethora of really great performances by young actors."