This Boy’s Life” is a nicely acted but excessively bland coming-of-age memoir about a young man’s escape from domestic turmoil and abuse. Numerous potent scenes of conflict between the central teenager and his violent stepfather will put this over with many critics and audiences, but treatment ultimately provides only limited insight into a somewhat familiar situation. Result is less compelling and emotionally wrenching than it means to be, and B.O. prospects look to fall in the middle range.
Advertised upfront as “a true story,” tale is based on Tobias Wolff’s acclaimed 1989 book of the same name and is duly narrated in writerly fashion by young Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hitting the road in 1957 with his working class mother Caroline (Ellen Barkin) after she splits from her b.f. (dad is remarried in the East), Toby begins hanging out with a bad crowd once they settle in Seattle, as he starts smoking, sports a pompadour, learns to talk dirty and indulges in petty crime.
Then mom meets Dwight (Robert De Niro), a man’s man with a crewcut who courts Caroline in his own arch manner but takes a particular interest in the unimpressed Toby. Even before Dwight and Caroline marry, Toby is sent to live with Dwight in the inauspiciously named small town of Concrete, Wash., where Dwight devotes all his attention to cutting the sullen “hotshot” down to size.
Toby says he wants to do better, and Dwight begins by giving the kid a matching crewcut, forcing him to work a paper route for which Dwight keeps all the money, and enrolling him in the Boy Scouts. In short order, Caroline marries the authoritarian Dwight, and the disaster that is their wedding night stands as the best screen argument in memory for having sex before marriage.
Drama’s second half charts Toby’s reversion to delinquency and his simultaneous effort to escape the oppressive influence of Dwight, whose abuse of his stepson assumes alarmingly brutal dimensions once he realizes the boy will be able to leave Concrete. It’s no accident that the two most powerful scenes in the film depict their rivalry in overtly physical terms, first when Dwight teaches Toby how to fight, and climactically when the two go at it no-holds-barred.
Unfortunately, after a relatively promising warmup, pic actually proceeds to flatten out the characters in the latter sections and to make them less dimensional and interesting than they initially seemed. After at first coming across as a potentially three-dimensional working woman, Barkin’s Caroline is placed squarely on the sidelines once she marries Dwight.
Dwight’s three kids remain total ciphers with virtually no dialogue; given much more time is Toby’s ambiguous relationship with the shamelessly flamboyant Arthur Gayle (Jonah Blechman), whom Toby initially attacks as a “homo” but later befriends as a kindred soul. This association is clearly meant to reveal the sensitive, aspiring side of Toby, but it is inadequately resolved.
Film’s strengths lie in its portrait of the push and pull of the father-stepson struggle, of how each one pushes the other to worse behavior and heightened obstinacy. De Niro brings both a rough charm and ferocious power to Dwight, making him the intimidating, bullheaded figure he needs to be. Centerscreen almost throughout, Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as Toby. Role demands tremendous range, and 18-year-old thesp delivers the gamut of emotions. Barkin weighs in with plenty of spirit until her character dries up.
Screenwriter Robert Getchell and director Michael Caton-Jones have fashioned plenty of dramatically valid sequences, but they add up to less than the sum of their parts. All hands, notably production designer Stephen J. Lineweaver, costumer designer Richard Hornung and lenser David Watkin, have contributed handsomely to evoking a late-1950s atmosphere.