This Boy’s Life (1993) Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. With Leonardo DoCaprio, Ellen Barkin and Robert DeNiro.
Based on the memoirs of author, Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life stars an 18-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular boy, beginning during a coming-of-age period of his life in the 1950’s in which he and his nomadic mother (Ellen Barkin) moved from town-to-town in the hope of creating a new life together. In an early scene, Tobias criticises his mother’s taste in men, which is a solid pre-cursor for what is to transpire.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones, the film tells the story of a struggle for identity and survival in the U.S nowhere town of Concrete, Washington. Although rural and in its own way beautiful, Concrete is no place for an aspirational young mind. Sadly for Tobias, it’s also home to Robert DeNiro’s Dwight, his mother’s new boyfriend and step-father to be. Outside the usual tribulations of teenage delinquency, Dwight is the real source of Tobias’ need to escape.
DeNiro is every bit as frightening here as he’s ever been – a domestic monster, he’s controlling, jealous, bitter and takes all of his frustration out on his newly adopted step-son. It’s an intense performance, up there with the actor’s finest turns, as he goes from ‘creepily nice‘, to ‘downright horror show‘ during the course of the film. Dwight seeks to lead Tobias down his own dead-end path of disappointment, using fear as his prime method of parental guidance while cruelly and selfishly attempting to snuff out the boy’s potential.
Pop culture of the 1950’s is prominent in the soundtrack choices, but also in the way the characters present themselves. As Tobias’ mother, Ellen Barkin is every inch a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, while Tobias (like all of his peers) styles himself on the rock n’roll of the era.
As Tobias, a young DiCaprio is once again excellent – petulant and disobedient on the surface, but with great depths of sensitivity and maturity underneath. Released the same year as his stand-out performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, 1993 marked the beginning of an extraordinary career.
Thanks to a note-perfect adapted screenplay by Robert Gretchell and direction that allows room for the performances to breathe, This Boy’s Life has a hovering cloud of threat throughout, pierced by moments of tenderness that amplify the viciousness tenfold. 4/5