To the chagrin and dismay of the Razzies (the Academy Awards antithesis) critics, Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones proves his talent at adapting books to the screen through his 1993 film “This Boy’s Life.”
The childhood memoir of Tobias Wolff, a Vietnam War veteran and Stanford University alumnus who has taught alongside Raymond Carver at prestigious higher education institutions such as Syracuse University, is vicariously brought to life thanks to masterful directing, an electrifying cast (featuring both A-list actors and remarkable newcomers) and a coming-of-age soundtrack. Despite its low-budget and relative big-screen unpopularity, “This Boy’s Life” deserves more love.
Set in the ‘50s, a relatively peaceful period, the storyline follows the life of a teenage boy named Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his light-hearted, frivolous mother, Caroline (Ellen Barkin). Trying really hard to leave a dark past behind (Toby has been forgotten by his biological father, and Caroline has suffered multiple assaults by her boyfriend in Florida), the two of them embark on an adventurous cross-country trip in a desperate search for happiness, financial stability and a better life.
Of course, their ride is quite bumpy: Caroline is ridiculed by a shop owner in Salt Lake City for her boldness to look for uranium, one of her former boyfriends is constantly stalking her and Toby is on the verge of facing expulsion from two different high schools.
A typical single mother/hormone-driven boy drama, huh?
Yet, their tale appears (yes, appears) to have a happy ending when the seemingly (yes, seemingly) gallant mechanic and army veteran, Dwight Hansen (Robert De Niro), takes the two of them under his wing and ties the knot with the mother, so that his three children from a previous marriage (the motherly Norma, the less-than-attractive and teasing Pearl and a boy, the mature diligent Skipper) become Toby’s stepsiblings.
Their new life in the idyllic yet boring town of Concrete (the name tells it all) is relatively normal, until Dwight’s dark side shows. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with a dead-end job, having been kicked out of the military and having been abandoned by his first wife, Dwight takes out his disappointment, spite and hostility on Toby by constantly terrorizing him psychologically and even physically. Fed up with the abuse, the boy is determined to leave Concrete and sees education as his only ticket out.
Despite the fact that his name comes third in the credits, DiCaprio steals every scene and illuminates the film with his vivacity, naiveté, genuineness, innocence and natural charm. Indeed, this movie is his first feature presentation (he was on the sitcom “Growing Pains” before this), and he is barely 19 in it. His portrayal of Tobias Wolff is light years away from the “Leo Mania” image of ‘90s, as well as from his current Scorsese muse image.
DiCaprio from “This Boy’s Life” is humble, childish (he doesn’t even look his actual age in the movie) and tender. De Niro (another Scorsese muse) remains truthful to his usual portrayal of a conflicted character in the role of the spiteful Dwight; he seems meaner than ever when pinching Toby rudely in the bathroom scene, or choking the helpless boy mercilessly in the final fight scene.
Yet, De Niro definitely departs from his New Yorker/Mafia man/cop image that he presents in “Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “Righteous Kill.” Yes, Concrete doesn’t exactly have the glamour of New York – a mechanic desperately learning to play the sax is somewhat different from an Italian mobster desperately trying to get “made” and cops seem extinct from the streets of Concrete. Nevertheless, De Niro is still convincing in the portrayal of a small-town man.
The New Yorker and Hunter College alumnus Barkin (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) also deserves kudos for the role of Caroline; just like De Niro, Barkin puts her big-city attitude aside when embodying the Midwestern, down-to-earth, unsophisticated single mother. Starting her career as an off-Broadway performer and not present enough on the big screen, Barkin is one of the most underrated film actresses. This is a pity.
Whereas DiCaprio, DeNiro and Barkin definitely illuminate the film as the three major characters, the contribution of the supporting cast to the overall vivacity of the feature is not to be ignored, either.
Carla Gugino (“American Gangster,” “Righteous Kill”) gives a respectable performance as Norma, the humble and caring daughter of Dwight who is like the second matriarch of the family. Television actress Eliza Dushku (“Buffy the Vampire,” “Angel”) sacrifices her own beauty to make the character of Pearl as repulsive as possible, both on the inside and out. The worldly unknown ballet dancer Jonah Blechman doesn’t yield a bit to DiCaprio’s performance in portraying Arthur Gayle, Toby’s best friend and the town’s black sheep due to his sexual orientation.
The universally poignant images and concepts of the struggling single mother, the child curious to enter into the adulthood, the incessant search for happiness, the quest for the real identity and the utmost desire to break free occupy every single minute – every single second of the feature. The carefully selected soundtrack, featuring rock and roll legends such as Eddie Cochran and Frankie Cyman, is a perfect memento for the days when we all were young, restless and believed we were invincible.