I first remember seeing 14 year old Renfro in the The Client (1995) his first feature film. I was surprised by the adeptness of his acting, his portrayal of rebellious murder witness Mark Sway was well executed, complexly brave and reckless, and a formidable performance. At the time of The Client‘s release, I was only about five, but even at that age I could tell that Renfro was operating on a level not necessarily higher than the other child actors that Hollywood had to offer at this time. But, what I could tell was that Renfro’s capabilities stood out as versatile,rough, and organic; he had the makings of a well seasoned actor.
Some of the other rising youth of Hollywood at the time: Edward Furlong of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992) fame, the Home Alone (1990-) trilogy’s Macaulay Culkin among many others. Renfro was often in trouble with the law later into his adolsence, similarly to many of these other child performers already mentioned, and early adult years still maintained performances that were consistent, natural and far from contrived, and when properly placed quite unsettling and raw. Seeing Renfro in Larry Clarke’s suburban-teenage-Babylon picture Bully (2001) was probably the most unnerving performance of his career. In Bully, his portrayal as the hard headed, ball of anger sidekick Marty Puccio felt authentic, as if Clarke had made the film with the intention of using the real life Renfro.
Recently watching Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), released the same year as Bully, gave me another chance to re-examine Renfro’s career. A prolific actor, Renfro’s ‘young and troubled actor’ image unfortunately overshadow the immense ambition his work showed. Renfro was one of the bests of his generation, and his death on January 15 2008 from a heroin overdose is sad and unfortunate. A loss to an industry that has been making money off of the talents of children and minors for a very long time. This is also not the first time that Hollywood has lost a child to its industry. It has shown to be a glamorously lit jungle that has its dark and seedy pockets of dangers which have proven to be a confusing and lethal experiences for many other youths.
Even more disturbing was that on the year of Renfro’s passing, the Academy Awards tribute to Hollywood figures who had died in the past year did not feature Renfro. When asked the reason for the exclusion, Spokeswoman of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences said that “Our goal is to honor individuals who worked in the many professions and trades of the motion picture industry, not just actors” and that “unfortunately we can’t include everyone”.
Seasoned actor Heath Ledger passed away about a week later, from a prescription drug overdose, and he was included in the tribute. Renfro was a child turned young man who showed us showed us with his dedication to acting- hell he started when he was twelve and dedicated the next 13 years of his life to it. Most of all his stand out talent showed that he was worthy of his profession. Hollywood can be an industry that proves cruel and unforgiving to those who devote their very lives to participating in it, and although denying Renfro may be part of a bigger agenda still doesn’t make it wrong.
Note: I chose not to discuss Heath Ledger’s inclusion into the Academy tribute montage (Heath died a week after Renfro and many seemed to make this a point to compare and contrast). I didn’t speak on this because Ledger’s inclusion, or whoever’s exclusion, in this matter is not important. This is not a compare and contrast piece- its a tribute.