How Kids Changed My Life

Sean Brosnan reveals the profound impact that Larry Clark and Harmony Korine's movie had on his angry, rebellious teenage years.

In 1995, I was 10 years old living in California’s Malibu mountains. My mother had passed away from ovarian cancer two years before and my father was traveling the world for work, paying off four years’ worth of medical bills and making sure we stayed afloat. I felt isolated, alone and had a constant fear of abandonment. The only neighbors we had were more than a mile away, and the closest thing I had to friends were our 10 dogs. All big dogs, ranging from rottweilers to German shepherds.

Laura, my live-in nanny, would drive me to and from the local Catholic school. I hated that school and loathed the uniform, which consisted of khaki trousers and a white collared shirt. Most of all, I resented what the school stood for. Catholicism. Religion. God. I had a beef with the man upstairs and to say I was angry would be an understatement.

First my rage came out sideways, days spent killing lizards with my Black Widow slingshot and shooting birds out of trees with my BB gun. I was a little serial killer in the making. One winter’s day at school, I thought it would be funny to piss in the holy water before the Friday service. The priest walked down the middle aisle sprinkling the blessed liquid onto all the students and teachers. If I hadn’t been the only one hiding under my jacket, laughing hysterically, I probably would have gotten away with it.

Not surprisingly, I was kindly asked to leave and ended up in the public school across the street. It was there that I met other kids like me. Kids with divorced parents, kids with alcoholic fathers, kids with hippie parents who believed their children should learn the hard lessons of life on their own and without guidance.

Nick, Jacob and Toby had been friends for a while. As I was the new kid, the leader of the trio, Nick, decided to pick a fight with me on my first day. I accepted the challenge and met him in the parking lot after school. The fight was quick and with no real winner. We both ended up with bloody noses and cut lips, which immediately cemented our bond and I was invited over to Nick’s the next night to watch a movie.

Laura dropped me off at his house, which was old and disheveled. (These were the days when Malibu still had its rustic charm, before Starbucks, Nobu and Britney Spears moved into town.) Nick’s father was away for work and his mother was out at dinner, so his 16-year-old brother was left in charge. When I arrived, he was out picking us up pepperoni pizza and a video from Blockbuster. The movie was Kids, written by Harmony Korine and directed by Larry Clark, which depicts a day in the life of a group of street kids in New York City.

Shot in a docu style, realistic and gritty, and using all non-actors, Kids had a profound effect on me. It was unlike any movie I had seen before and after those 95 minutes, my outlook on life had changed. I felt a deep kinship and empathy toward the character of Casper (played by Justin Pierce), an alcoholic skateboarder with no regard for anything or anyone besides himself and his friends.

I wanted to emulate Casper and began skateboarding religiously with the rest of the guys behind the local Pizza Hut. We would scrape up enough money to ask Jeremy, the local homeless guy, to buy us beer and cans of whipped cream so we could huff nitrous. Punk rock became my music of choice and smoking weed a daily occurrence. Every weekend, we would meet up at Nick’s house and watch Kids on his VCR, smoking cigarettes out the window until his dad got home from work and passed out in front of the TV.

A year later, I was expelled from that public school for vandalizing the school property and smoking pot in the bathroom. I could have ratted on the rest of the guys, but I asked myself, “What would Casper do?” Needless to say, my father was furious and I ended up being homeschooled for a year, until junior high. I was then enrolled into Malibu High School, where my career with drugs and alcohol really flourished. I was 13 and experimenting with psychedelics and cocaine. I’d lost touch with Nick and the rest of the boys during my year of homeschooling, but I now fell in with a group of guys four years my senior. They had a violent reputation and were already dealing drugs. They reminded me of the characters in Kids. Automatically, I wanted in. A lot of them lived in Venice, so after school I would either catch the bus or hitchhike to meet up with them on the boardwalk to skate and cause trouble. Life was good for a while. For a minute, I felt as if I belonged.

Her name was Molly. She was 16, with long blond hair and a nose ring. She was by far the most exotic thing I had ever laid my eyes upon. I lied and told her I was 15 and we developed a little relationship. I fell in love with her that summer and one night at a house party I found Molly rolling on ecstasy. I was drunk off cheap vodka and tried to make small talk, until I found myself being led upstairs into the master bedroom. Molly pushed me onto the bed and started kissing me hard, then she took my hand and slid it down her pants and asked me if I wanted to have sex. I asked her if she had a condom and she said she didn’t care. My little 13-year-old mind nearly exploded and then the final scene from Kids flashed inside my internal projector. The scene where Casper has sex with an unconscious Jenny (Chloë Sevigny), who has just been diagnosed HIV positive. Before I could say another word, Molly had my pants around my ankles. I was trying to stop her from taking off my underwear, when all of a sudden the door burst open and James, the leader of the older guys, stumbled in with a few others.

“He’s fucking your girl, James!”

I was unaware Molly was in a relationship or having sex with any of the older guys. If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have pursued her in the first place.

Before I could explain myself, I was punched in the side of the head so hard a few of my teeth cracked. I landed on the floor and struggled to pull my pants up in embarrassment as a barrage of kicks and stomps rained down on the back of my head and torso. Then one swift kick to the temple knocked me out.

When I awoke, the room was empty and my blood was splattered on the cream carpet. I hobbled into the bathroom, examined my swollen face and began to cry. Why would they do this to me? Why didn’t Molly tell me she was with James? How could I have been so gullible? Of course, now that I have lived through the pain of adolescence, the answer is clear as day to me. I was a kid, and sometimes kids get lost, hurt and abandoned. Kids make mistakes, and in those formative teenage years, they can have profound consequences.

Kids captured that horror, that pain and those consequences, perfectly. Watching the film as a boy, there was something that I identified with, though I didn’t yet know why. I thought it was because of the way Casper styled his hair, or the way in which he and his friends lived so recklessly. That was part of it, but the real reason that movie captured me was the sadness, the pain and sadness the characters covered up with anger and teenage rebellion. The fear they covered up with bravado and drugs.

Would my teenage years have been different if I hadn’t have watched Kids? Maybe, but that’s not the point. The point is I needed that film during that time in my life. It gave me an identity and something to latch onto. Ultimately, it helped strip away the layers of who I thought I should be, and helped show me who I am. Those lessons weren’t learned over night. (In fact, it took many more years of near-death experiences and bad choices to finally get the message, but those are stories for another time!)

Now when I watch that film, as a father, a husband and a filmmaker, I realize just how lost I was and how lucky I am. It now serves as a reminder of the path I could have chosen and how powerful and influential the moving image can be, especially for a child, for a kid.

Sean Brosnan is an actor, writer and director living in Los Angeles. A graduate of the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, his acting credits include David Simon’s Emmy-winning HBO series Generation Kill and the films Don Peyote and What Dreams May Travel. In 2012, he began writing and directing award-winning short films through Knightmarcher, the company he started with his wife and producing partner, Sanja Banic. His debut feature as writer-director, My Father Die, is in theaters now.