Introducing Thora and friends...

American Beauty has won critical praise and countless Oscar nominations. But little attention has been paid to the cast's youthful core. Righting that wrong, Vanessa Thorpe salutes Thora Birch, Mena Suvari and Wes Bentley, while Akin Ojumu imagines what Thora might do next
Sun 27 Feb 2000 07.56 EST

We all know what is meant these days by the word 'talent'. In anyone's terminology, and most especially in Hollywood's, we are likely to be talking good looks.Thora Birch, and one of her young co-stars in American Beauty, Mena Suvari, certainly have 'talent'. Attention has focused on the hyper-real performances of Annette Bening, Kevin Spacey and Chris Cooper, but it is the adolescent characters played by Birch and Suvari which drive the plot. In the welter of award nominations fired at American Beauty it is surprising then that neither actress has picked up a mention

As they enjoy their fame by association in the run-up to the Oscars next month, neither Birch nor Suvari should find it hard to show that their 'talent' comprises more than good looks. They may have spawned a thousand dodgy fan websites, but, first, they can both act, and, second, American Beauty tackles today's sexual obsession with youth in such a head-on way, taking it to the borders of paedophilia, that their roles as naive temptresses backfire on everyone around them, including the audience.

The girls are the products of a high school casting machine that's been in overdrive in recent years. With all the campus screenplays which followed the success of Clueless (Election, 10 Things I Hate About You, Never Been Kissed and more), it has been hard for cinema-goers to spot the difference between a shooting star and a flash in the pan. Should we still be waiting for Alicia Silverstone to make a comeback? What about those TV crossovers, Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Michelle Geller? Are they anything more than cute? And, while we are on the subject of cute, what exactly did happen to Molly Ringwald and her Breakfast Club?

The trouble is that young actors of either sex always suffer a little from the dog-on-its-hind-legs syndrome: children look clever if they can just say their lines in a sassy way but their precocity may not be so startling as they enter their mid-thirties.

Jodie Foster is usually offered as the exception. She remains big at the box office, although she no longer has the pulling power to 'open' a movie. Other teen stars sometimes earn a second stab at stardom. Rob Lowe, for instance, has eventually clawed his way back via Wayne's World, TV and a moody descent into mayhem.

So far Birch has made her name by effortlessly combining the bolshiness of Darleen's character in Roseanne with the spooky allure of Christina Ricci. In America she has also benefited, strangely, from a first name which is considered exotic. (They are not familiar with Thora Hird over there). Now 17, she grew up on a ranch in California where her parents named her after the god of thunder - and called her brother Bolt. She is a natural to play all those wayward, tomboy daughters who form the moral centre of many a current Hollywood screenplay.

In this country we may not remember her early appearance as a blonde toddler in a Quaker Oats advertisement but many will have seen her as the beloved daughter of Harrison Ford and Anne Archer in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger in 1992 and 1994. Since then she has appeared with Ricci in Now And Then and won top billing in the adventure film Alaska in 1996.

Birch is soon to start filming a screen version of the fantasy board game Dungeons and Dragons, starring as a princess opposite Jeremy Irons. Perhaps inspired by Foster, she hopes to end up on the other side of the camera as a director.

While Birch gets to play all the bristling, wise-cracking children Suvari is definitely the baby doll type, the Lolita to end all Lolitas (let's hope). At 20 she is older than Birch and starred recently in American Pie. A natural redhead, her first name comes from an Egyptian godmother. Her father is an Estonian psychiatrist and her mother a nurse.

Suvari has just finished making a black comedy, Sugar and Spice, where she will plays a cheerleader. Following the kitsch basketball 'ra-ra' scene in American Beauty, this means she is currently cornering the market in Aryan cheerleaders.

Much of the credit for the wonky perspective on teenage life in American Beauty must go to another youngster, Wes Bentley, as Ricky Fitts, the boy who does not 'fit'. He sell drugs and secretly films his neighbours - yet this is our all-American hero .

Bentley is 21 and comes from Arkansas. He is soon to be seen in Kingdom Come, an Americanised version of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge , and he recently excelled in a small role in Jonathan Demme's Beloved. In American Beauty his distant blue eyes fetchingly match the stripe on his woolly hat and he is thoroughly unsettling. In fact Bentley inhabits the part of Ricky so completely that he is in danger of stopping his career. Casting directors may not spot how conventionally good looking he could be.

No danger of that with Birch, who has taken to the celebrity circuit like a natural - well, she has been at the game for a while. At 14 she appeared on Conan O'Brien's celebrity chat show with a very short skirt and a ready wit. Talking about one of her earlier movies, Monkey Trouble, she admitted that one of the monkeys used in the film had to be taken off the set.

'The trainer said that one had a crush on me. It was, well, a guy monkey.'