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, with numerous potent scenes of conflict between the central teenager and his violent stepfather.
Tale is based on Tobias Wolff’s acclaimed 1989 book of the same name and is duly narrated in writerly style by young Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hitting the road in 1957 with his working class mother Caroline (Ellen Barkin), Toby begins hanging out with a bad crowd once they settle in Seattle.
Then mom meets Dwight (Robert De Niro), a man’s man with a crewcut. Even before Dwight and Caroline marry, Toby is sent to live with Dwight in Concrete, Wash, where Dwight devotes himself to cutting the sullen ‘hotshot’ down to size.
Unfortunately, after a relatively promising warmup, pic actually proceeds to flatten out the characters in the latter sections. Film’s strength lies in its portrait of the father-stepson struggle, how each pushes the other toward even worse behavior.
De Niro brings both a rough charm and ferocious power to Dwight. Centerscreen almost throughout, DiCaprio is excellent as Toby. Barkin weighs in with plenty of spirit until her character dries up.