Maybe it's the exclamation point. Or the word Kraa. But somehow Alison Lohman's first big acting gig, 1998's ''Kraa! The Sea Monster,'' didn't scream Introduction of a Major Screen Presence. ''I played this girl who had telepathic powers,'' recalls Lohman, 24. ''We were after Kraa and...I don't remember much more about it. I think I blanked it in my mind.''
Considering Lohman's post-''Kraa'' projects, who can blame her? The Palm Desert, Calif., native went Hollywood after high school, and, despite her limited résumé (including Fox's short-lived soap ''Pasadena''), bested 400 hopefuls to land last year's ''White Oleander.'' As a foster kid who can't shake the grip of her imprisoned mother, Lohman carried every scene, aged from 14 to 20, and lit fires under Robin Wright Penn, Renée Zellweger, and screen ma Michelle Pfeiffer. ''Oleander'' wasn't the Oscar bait its makers had hoped for, but Lohman's performance earned her doting reviews and, more importantly, more work. Flashy stuff, too: This fall, she'll charm Nicolas Cage in Ridley Scott's ''Matchstick Men'' and flirt with Ewan McGregor for Tim Burton's ''Big Fish.''
In ''Matchstick,'' the actress plays Cage's long-lost daughter-turned-con partner -- a character who's the actress' junior by a decade. To get that teen spirit, she mall-hopped with her 14-year-old cousin and skate-punked around Santa Monica. ''We'd run into these skater kids and I just felt like such a dork on my skateboard -- they were all really cool, I was trying to fit in,'' she laughs. ''It was just sort of embarrassing.''
But effective. Costar Sam Rockwell thought she was a kid when he first met her (''She was kind of quiet and mousy,'' he says). He soon found himself wowed by Lohman's weeping on request for ''Matchstick'''s dramatic scenes. ''It's not that hard to cry,'' says Rockwell. ''But Alison could do it really quickly. She could do it over and over. Sometimes I can do that. But I have to listen to some sad s---, kick a puppy for like an hour. She did it at the drop of a hat.''
Lohman got a call from Burton while she was performing ''This Is Our Youth'' in London's West End. The part in his family fable isn't huge -- she plays Jessica Lange's character in flashbacks, as a '50s Southern sorority girl. But the ''Edward Scissorhands'' fan couldn't resist working with the director. ''You feel secure in his hands,'' she says. As for future projects, Lohman -- whose childhood singing gigs included crooning in front of Frank Sinatra at a Palm Springs benefit -- names ''Footloose'' as a dream remake. She'd also love to work with Baz Luhrmann. Lohman has but one request: ''I'd like to step out of the whole playing-14 [thing].'' Bet she'll age well.