I hope what’s not lost in the speculation over Brad Renfro’s untimely death at 25 — especially given the likelihood that he’ll become just another cautionary tale of a child star who destroyed himself with drugs as he entered adulthood — is an acknowledgment that he was a really good actor with a solid body of work. Aside from his self-assured debut in 1994′s The Client and his first mature teen performance in Apt Pupil (1998), very few of those roles were for studio pictures; most were more challenging indie fare, like Telling Lies in America and Ghost World. In retrospect, it’s easy to draw a link between the troubled youths and delinquents he often played (Tom and Huck, Sleepers, Apt Pupil, Bully) and his own life, but his performances in these films indicated a young actor who, maybe only on-screen, displayed a wisdom, sensitivity, and maturity beyond his years. He recently wrapped filming on The Informers, a drama in which he acts alongside Winona Ryder, Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, and Mickey Rourke, and I’m sure we’ll see him hold his own alongside such established pros, just as he did opposite Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, and Ian McKellen.
I met Renfro when he was 11 years old and promoting The Client. He seemed to me then to be an unusually bright and self-possessed kid. He seemed fully aware of the opportunity that had been handed to him (by the casting agents who discovered him in Knoxville, Tenn.) and the career path it could lead to, but insisted that he was going to remain level-headed and himself, that folks at home would keep him humble and honest. Alas, that boast, made with youthful bravado, did not come to pass, but I didn’t see any reason at the time to doubt that he would go on to have a long and productive future in movies. I’m reluctant to draw any pat lessons here, except to say that we never really know the stars we think we know, and to regret the terrible waste of a life, as well as a career full of past accomplishment and future promise.