This Boy's Life (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

This Boy's Life is based on the autobiographical book by Syracuse University professor Tobias Wolff. It tells of his early life in Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Concrete, Washington. Tobias (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his mother, Caroline (Ellen Barkin), travel from place-to-place, repeatedly trying to start anew. Because of the nomadic nature of their existence, Tobias never knows the stability of a traditional home life. Then he and his mother arrive in Seattle, where Caroline meets Dwight (Robert DeNiro). With his upstanding character and resolute moral fiber, Dwight seems like the perfect choice for a husband and father. However, when Tobias spends a few months alone with Dwight and his children in advance of the wedding, he experiences firsthand his stepfather-to-be's dark side.

There isn't much that can be said about the plot of a story based on a person's boyhood adventures. No one but Tobias Wolff knows how much dramatic license was used in writing his memoirs, but, on the whole, This Boy's Life has the ring of truth. Every boy who has grown up in America will surely recognize parts of himself, both good and bad, in Tobias. The film is well-paced and expertly edited, allowing scenes to flow naturally into one another.

Leonardo DiCaprio, whose only previous credit is the television series Growing Pains, shows unexpected passion and raw ability (he still needs some polishing). Robert DeNiro gives another effective performance as a strong man who means well but is plagued by a violent inner nature. Dwight is not evil, but his means and methods are often reprehensible. When he says that he has Tobias' best interests at heart, we believe him, but it quickly becomes apparent that his manner of instruction is often inhumane. With her latest pictures (this one and John Turturro's Mac), Ellen Barkin is apparently trying to broaden her range. This Boy's Life gives her an opportunity to take on a challenging role as a single mother in the 1950s.

Using Dwight as its subject, This Boy's Life explores dominantion as a means of compensating for emotional inadequacy and insecurity. Dwight believes in mastery through physical and psychological force. He will insult and abuse anyone to make it clear that he is in control. He needs to dominate -- at one time or another, he asserts his power over everyone close to him: his children, his wife, and Tobias. Since Dwight doesn't know how to react with love or tenderness, he consistently resorts to violence.

Another motif present in this film mirrors an aspect of The Crying Game. One of the key lines in that movie is "It's in your nature." This Boy's Life deals with the question of what a person's nature is and whether or not it can be changed. Tobias is forever trying to make himself into a "better person", but it becomes clear as the movie unfolds that transforming one's basic character is not a simple matter.

Ultimately, This Boy's Life is effective because we get to know the characters, understand their circumstances, and empathize with their dreams. Certain individual scenes don't work (too overwrought or cliched), but the film as a whole stands up relatively well. Since This Boy's Life is a true story, there is a sense of incompleteness, but, as coming-of-age tales go, the realism of this one gives it an edge over many overly-sentimental contenders.

This Boy's Life (United States, 1993)

Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Ellen Barkin
Screenplay: Robert Getchell from the novel by Tobias Wolff
Cinematography: David Watkin
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 1993-04-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1