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Shia LaBeouf might be the next Tom Hanks. But Emile Hirsch could be the next Sean Penn . By Zac Crain

It would be almost impossible to argue against the idea that as far as young actors go, so far 2007 has been the Year of Shia LaBeouf. I mean, that statement doesn’t even really need the “young” qualifier. The 21-year-old LaBeouf, previously best known for such tween fare as the Disney Channel’s Even Stevens and the screen adaptation of young-adult best-seller Holes, has had an extended Hollywood coming-out party over the past few months. It’s been an unbelievable hot streak: In just a few short months, he’s had one surprise hit (Disturbia, which was Rear Window for the MySpace generation), one mildly predictable one (the animated Surf’s Up, which somehow extended the public’s fascination with penguins), and one that was all but assured ­(Transformers, which cemented his A-list status, even though the robots were the real draw).

On top of all that, LaBeouf has earned a prime role in the long-awaited fourth installment of the Indiana Jones series as well as a reputation as a real actor, not just some kid who appears in movies solely to enjoy the life that celebrity affords. The hype surrounding him culminated in a Vanity Fair cover that posed a daunting question about someone so young: “Is this kid the next Tom Hanks?”

You know what? There’s a very good chance that’s exactly what LaBeouf is, or will be. He’s likable, talented, and connected; no less than Steven Spielberg has taken LaBeouf under his considerable wing. So no, I will not argue that 2007 is not the Year of Shia LaBeouf. I will not argue that he shouldn’t be considered one of the finest actors of his generation. What I will argue is this: It’s not a one-horse race. There’s another kid out there who’s only a year older, and while he hasn’t enjoyed the same box-office success so far (though it will come — more on that in a moment), he has built a very solid body of work over the past three years.

His name is Emile Hirsch.

You might not recognize those two words. That’s fine. They’re not as off-the-beaten-path as Shia or LaBeouf nor as assembly-line-perfect as Tom or Hanks. They’re just strange enough to be memorable, but not so much that they stick in your head the first few times. You might not even remember the movies Hirsch has been in so far — the most notable being 2004’s The Girl Next Door, 2005’s Lords of Dogtown, and 2006’s Alpha Dog. That’s fine too. The nonrecognition is easily remedied — that’s what Netflix is for. Add these movies to your queue and you’ll see what I see: The kid’s a star. He just hasn’t had his hit yet.

In The Girl Next Door, you’ll find a note-perfect tribute to Risky Business, and in Hirsch’s character (Matthew Kidman), you’ll see a modern analogue of Tom Cruise’s Joel Goodsen — fresh scrubbed, charismatic, and … short. In Lords of Dogtown — this is where it really gets good — as troubled skateboarder Jay Adams, Hirsch is the heart and soul of the film, absolutely owning every scene in which he appears while retaining no trace of Matthew Kidman. His role in Alpha Dog, as rich-kid drug dealer Johnny Truelove, is closer in spirit to his work in Lords of Dogtown, but Hirsch still finds new territory to explore. The character of Truelove could have just ended up as an extended riff on Adams. Hirsch could have tried to shield his image and played Truelove as more of an antihero. Instead, he took the braver path — especially for an up-and-coming young Hollywood turk — and removed every shred of hero from the character. Alpha Dog might not have really succeeded critically or commercially, but Hirsch did.

So his hit will arrive soon. At the very least, it will come next year, when Hirsch headlines a live-action take on the iconic Japanimation series Speed Racer, the first film directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski since The Matrix trilogy. And it might come even sooner than that — it might come this month, when Into the Wild hits screens. It should.

Based on the riveting, true-life story penned by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild goes exactly where the title implies. The film, written and directed by Sean Penn, follows Christopher McCandless as he turns his back on civilization (he leaves behind his Emory University education and gives his $24,000 life savings to charity) and ends up in the middle of an Alaskan nowhere. Hirsch, who stars as McCandless, ended up with his own tale of survival while shooting the film, as he dropped a substantial amount of weight from his already-thin frame and performed in conditions not much better than the type that his character endured.

Krakauer’s book and Penn’s participation will, no doubt, be the main attractions. The material and the duo behind it are what will fill the seats. But Hirsch will keep them there. Believe me. I know his career better than anyone, outside of his publicist and his mother. He’s had a few turns at bat, sure. But this time — to continue the analogy — he finally has a few men on base. People are paying attention. I suspect that that will continue for another few decades.

In other words, watch out, Shia LaBeouf. You might be the answer to the question, who is the next Tom Hanks? But there’s someone else who might be the answer to a few other questions such as: Who is the next Sean Penn? What about the next Johnny Depp?

His name is Emile Hirsch. And he’s gaining on you.