Starring Robert De Niro and a young Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first leading role), Michael Caton-Jones’ This Boy’s Life (1993) is the emotive tale of the youth of dirty realist author Tobias Wolff. The film is based on the autobiographical book of the same title by Wolff and was superbly adapted for the screen by Oscar-nominee Robert Getchell.
In the early 1950s, Toby (DiCaprio) and his mother, Caroline (Ellen Barkin) are fleeing from her violent ex-boyfriend in the hope of finding some stability for herself and her son. Roaming from town to town with little luck they eventually settle in Seattle. Here Caroline meets the apparently charming Dwight (De Niro) who she all too quickly marries and moves with to the isolated town of Concrete.
Once there Dwight’s charming façade falls away revealing a controlling, emotional and physical bully of grotesque proportions determined to ‘kill or cure’ the rebellious Toby. Set in the world of the 1950’s pre-Civil Rights Movement and before JFK was assassinated, the film superbly demonstrates an undercurrent of radical change and the cheap veneer that was the America dream, epitomised in the overt-tension that exists between ultra-traditionalist Dwight and rebellious teenager Toby ‘Jack’ Wolff.
The performances are what make This Boy’s Life an excellent film. De Niro breaks from the traditional characters that in the early ‘90’s he was so well known for (before the sad days when he thought Meet The Parents was a good career choice), and DiCaprio displays the nascent talent that we recognise in his performances today.
The traumatic relationship between Dwight and Toby is captured excellently. In a series of outstanding scenes the acting is of such a high calibre that the emotional torture Dwight inflicts can provoke a physical reaction in the viewer. Like Wolff’s novels this film weighs two extremely different character types against each other in attempting to provide a moral lesson without becoming dogmatic.
This Boy’s Life is not an egotistical outpouring about the formation of an author, in fact it is almost unimportant that this is about Tobias Wolff. It is the story of the growing pains of youth and an individual’s struggle to find identity and independence in the face of extreme hardship. Nonetheless these traumatic years were formative for Wolff who, in a disturbing fashion, was created by Dwight. Wolff made stories up in order to escape his traumatic situation – like all good authors he is a teller of beautiful lies.
This Boy’s Life’s central weakness is the direction; Caton-Jones’ (now a director on BBC’s Spooks) approach is highly conventional to say the least. He relies on tacky montages too frequently to account for and also shifts in time to cover a series of emotional events.
Despite the weakness of direction, This Boy’s Life remains an incredible example of outstanding acting and fine screenwriting.