This Boy’s Life: Family Melodrama, Starring De Niro and DiCaprio (Father and Son)

This Boy’s Life, emotionally powerful family drama, is set in the late 1950s in the Northwest.

It is based on Tobias Wolff’s autobiography, the movie tells the story of Caroline (Ellen Barkin), a young divorced mother, and Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio), her adolescent son.

For a while, you think the movie belongs to the same category of Martin Scorsese’s great road picture, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. This resemblance is also suggested by the fact that the screenwriter is Robert Getchell, who won an Oscar nomination for writing Alice Doesn’t. However, as the movie progresses, you realize that it has a different agenda on its mind.

Caroline represents the type of woman who, until push comes to shove, never gives herself an account of who she is and what her goals are. Cursed with bad luck and bad taste in men, she sets on the road to Seattle to flee an affair with a mean-spirited man. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore also contained a strong scene between Ellen Burstyn and her loutish and offensive lover (played by Harvey Keitel). Whenever things get back, Caroline just picks up and leaves, only to be disappointed again. Indeed, before long, she falls for Dwight (Robert De Niro), an insecure, tyrannical patriarch who somehow misleads her to believe he is a courtly gentleman.

Strangely enough, the film’s best and most important sequences are not those between Toby and his brutal stepfather, but between Toby and his friends. Resentful of his name, Toby demands that his friends call him Jack (after the novelist Jack London). The picture captures extremely well the feelings of an outsider par excellence, a boy who knows he is better than his friends, yet needs to belong to some meaningful group. There is a great scene, when an administrator from an Ivy League school interviews Toby in a local cafe and the boy is embarrassed by the vulgar behavior of his comrades. Later, Toby pretends that his stepfather is just an acquaintance, a mechanic who worked on their car.

This Boy’s Life lacks subtlety and depth: It doesn’t probe deep enough into the psyche of Dwight, who is basically a loser and truly a “little man,” though decidedly not in the Frank Capra mold. We see, time and again, the outward manifestations of Dwight’s nasty and sadistic behavior, but not much is revealed about the inner personality of a defeated, acutely humiliated man. What’s missing from the picture are insights about the relationships between Dwight and his own children (from a previous marriage), and some information about the interaction between Toby and Dwight’s children.

The story stops at the most interesting point, that is, when Toby tells one of his friends in terror, “I’m turning into Dwight.” The movie supports this idea by showing how Toby first tortures then befriends Jonah, the local effeminate, artistic boy.

Lacking sharp focus, the film begins as the story of Caroline, but she all but disappears in the mid section of the film. Until the very end, when she and Toby resolve to take control of their lives, i.e., to escape. There is a new dimension to the tale that the film could, but didn’t, develop: It is Toby who revives the spirits of his depressed mother and forces her to take action, change her life. Very rarely do we get such fresh intergenerational perspective, showing the positive influence of children on their parents; in most American movies, it’s the other way round.

That said, the acting is uniformly impressive. Robert De Niro has done variations of his nasty stepfather role in the past; most recently, in Cape Fear. Yet, like other actors of his generation, most notably Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson, De Niro seems to be in a new career phase. As he showed in Night and the City last year, De Niro wants to reach the public, to be more accessible than he had been in the past.

Ellen Barkin also renders an excellent portrayal of the passive, victimized wife. Unlike Toby and Dwight, she is a type, a product of her times. However, the narrative provides her with enough quirks to make her character interesting; for example, when she is upset, she goes to bed fully clothed.

But the film belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio who inhabits, rather than just plays, the role of Toby/Jack. Male teenagers would relate to DiCaprio on a deep, visceral level.

It is also encouraging to report that Michael Caton-Jones, who recently directed mainstream, sentimental, undistinguished comedies (“Doc Hollywood” with Michael J. Fox) is back in top form. Caton-Jones stages the film in a way that makes its rather episodic structure quite dramatic and powerful.

A student of mine who has read Tobias Wolff’s childhood memoir told me that in the book the stepfather is not as physically abusive and brutal as in the movie.  Still, what is amazing about this real-life story is that despite (or perhaps because of) harsh and tormented childhood, Toby grew up to become a professor of literature.