Joe watches with fascination, as if the nature of acting were dawning on him for the first time; strangely enough, he may also be falling in love.
For us watching along with Joe, the scene brings home that Fanning, unlike Alice, was no newcomer to the screen. She started acting professionally, in a loose sense, at the age of two, and by the time of Super-8 had appeared in more than a dozen films as well as numerous TV shows.
Today, she has a list of credits longer than many actors twice her age – and there remains something uncanny about her facility, carried over from her precocious poise in childhood.
Fanning started out following in the footsteps of her older sister Dakota, already celebrated as a child star. But where Dakota was known for gravitas beyond her years, the younger Fanning had a lighter, more ethereal energy — exploited by Sofia Coppola in her 2010 showbiz reverie Somewhere, in which Fanning’s character is both foil and soulmate to her loose-living celebrity dad (Stephen Dorff).
If Fanning then seemed an unusually adult child, her screen persona today is that of an unusually childlike adult. In her early twenties, she remains, outwardly, the traditional ingenue — slender and sweetly pretty, with round cheeks made for blushing.
Even when not appearing in period pieces (British accent optional) she resembles the kind of heroine found in 19th-century fiction, described in old-fashioned adjectives such as ‘‘dewy’’ or ‘‘unspoiled’’. She has gone through this routine so many times that there’s something mannered about it, recalling a line from one of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics: ‘‘Lovely is the one thing I can do.’’
Happily, that’s not the whole story. Fanning has certainly had her share of thankless roles, as a suitably sensitive love object for bumbling young heroes, or as the drippy Princess Aurora in the Maleficent films, an intentionally bland counterpoint to the spiky glamour of Angelina Jolie.
But there have been other films, not always widely seen, that bring out the contradictions within her persona: how innocence can contain knowingness or vice versa. Sometimes she’s cast as a budding intellectual whose ideals work better in theory than practice: a 1960s anti-nuclear campaigner in Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, or the author of Frankenstein in Haifaa al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley (which, however, is duller than a film on this subject has any right to be).
Fanning’s apparent vulnerability suits her too for Gothic stories where she’s the kind of innocent all too likely to be led astray: this is the crux of Nicolas Winding Refn’s lurid The Neon Demon, in which she’s an up-and-coming model lost in the Gothic hellscape of the fashion industry.
Conversely, she can play the alien in a ‘‘normal’’ world, as in John Cameron Mitchell’s How To Talk To Girls At Parties, where she’s an extra-terrestrial on a flying visit to Britain during the punk era.
This was a part that gave some scope to her flair for comedy, showcased most spectacularly in Woody Allen’s still unreleased A Rainy Day In New York, in which she’s a country girl determined to get the most from her 24 hours on the town.
Fanning’s strength, across all these contexts, is her emotional openness and mobility, allowing her to react to a scripted scenario if caught unawares.
Someone could put together a YouTube video cataloguing her range of smiles: shy, coy, mournful, hopeful, puzzled, embarrassed, or like the cat that got the cream. Then there’s the smile that trumps them all, where she looks as if she’s about to break into a fit of giggles—which she frequently does.
Currently, the best place to get a sense of Fanning’s range is through her new streaming series, The Great, the latest retelling of the story of Catherine the Great (most famously played by Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s extraordinary The Scarlet Empress, which The Great references in its opening shot of Fanning on a swing).
The show is what used to be described as a ‘‘bawdy romp’’ — the kind of salacious cartoon of history that the show’s creator Tony McNamara gave us in his Oscar-nominated script for Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite.
But there are moments of genuine drama in the midst of all the silliness — and ample room for further character development in future episodes, with Catherine destined to evolve from the naive bride of Russia’s demented emperor (Nicholas Hoult) to one of the most powerful women in the world.
Fanning’s ‘‘naturalness’’ on camera points us towards a central mystery of screen acting. When we find a performance convincing, do we suppose the performer was going through a genuine emotional experience at the moment of shooting?
Or is it just as likely to be all technique? Or is the distinction even meaningful, especially in the case of performers such as Fanning, practised since childhood at delivering feeling on cue?
Having watched Fanning grow up on camera, we may feel that in a sense we know her intimately; at the same time, we don’t know her at all. That too has its uncanniness — and is part of what makes her fascinating to watch.
The Great is available on Stan from May 16.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.