This Boy’s Life (1993) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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

About garethrhodes

Full-time lover of all things creative.
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11 Responses to This Boy’s Life (1993) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

  1. filmfunkel says:

    Ha ha – Leo’s so young!

    Sounds more dark than I would’ve expected. I shall have to track this down. 😀

  2. I thought I had seen every Leo movie but I’ve somehow missed this one! I’ll have to watch it. It sounds really interesting. I really like the small town stories and this one seems to have a lot of heart. Thanks for pointing it out

    • garethrhodes says:

      Thank you for reading Mel, I appreciate it very much. He’s great here, despite being so young. As I was watching his performance, I saw such maturity and bravery for a kid of his age and relatively minimal acting experience – especially considering many of the things the film requires of him.

  3. I’m a huge DiCaprio fan but this is the one that has evaded me thus far — sounds like I really need to see it asap! Also interesting that DiCaprio has become the ‘new De Niro’ when it comes to his partnership with Scorsese, and here are the two working together 20 years ago. Great work Gareth.

    • garethrhodes says:

      Thank you, Adam. I’d be very interested to get your take on this one. It’s such an early performance, but his talent is all there. It’s amazing really, how he could find those depths at such a young age. Also, that’s a great point you make about DeNiro and DiCaprio and how their careers have aligned in a certain way.

  4. vinnieh says:

    Nice review, this film has somehow eluded me but your review has made me want to seek it out. Can’t get over how young Leo looks in the picture.

    • garethrhodes says:

      Thank you for checking it out. I know, right!? His career already spans over twenty-years, and he’s got decades in front of him. It’s already one hell of a career to look back on.

      • vinnieh says:

        Wow, I knew he’d been going a long time but not that long. And as you say, he’s got years and years to come of an already illustrious career.

  5. WildFire says:

    This is one of my favourite Di Caprio performances, though seeing this movie had a profound effect on me at the time. Good review. 🙂

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