Leonardo DiCaprio’s career is an interesting one to study. He started out in television series’ and low budget films and suddenly escalated into a heartthrob of massive proportions in the nineties with Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Titanic (1997). DiCaprio avoided being pigeonholed as a typical Hollywood heartthrob doing typical Hollywood action and romance films and seemed to pick his roles carefully, becoming Martin Scorsese’s muse and starring in credible, interesting films. He has successfully evolved into one of the most exciting actors around today. Some of his most interesting work can be found in the period before Romeo and Juliet and This Boy’s Life sees DiCaprio in his first leading role and demonstrates his tremendous talent. It also sees him share the screen with Scorsese’s previous muse Robert De Niro and anybody who can hold their own against such a screen presence deserves respect in my opinion.
The film opens with beautiful sweeping shots of Monument Valley showing some of America’s most breath taking scenery and we hear the song Let’s Get Away From It All by Frank Sinatra. Immediately it is clear as we see a lady and a teenage boy singing along to the music in a car that these two characters are escaping. We quickly learn that what they are escaping from is Caroline’s (Ellen Barkin) ex-boyfriend and our narrator is her son Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film states it is based on a true story, the story of Tobias Wolff, who is now a writer and literature professor. Toby was not always on the path to success though and it is his memoirs of growing up with an abusive step-father that this film is based on.
The year is 1957 and the two are driving from Florida to Utah after Toby’s mother was beaten up by her boyfriend. They are determined to start afresh and change their luck making money by finding Uranium in Salt Lake City but things don’t go to plan and in order to escape another boyfriend they move on to Seattle. Here Caroline meets Dwight (Robert De Niro), a well-dressed gentleman who lights ladies cigarettes, has manners and successfully charms Caroline and her friends. Caroline and Dwight begin courting and as Toby begins to have problems at school his mother sends him to live with Dwight in small town Concrete so his has some form of a father figure and role model. This soon becomes a permanent thing as Caroline and Dwight decide to get married, but Dwight is not as nice as he first seems and the mother and son’s fresh start begins to look less rosy.
Originally I saw this film quite a few years ago and so when watching it again I was surprised at how few scenes there are of Dwight actually being physically abusive, it is much more verbal and subtle. De Niro is on top form as the angry controlling Dwight who is clearly unhappy with what he has accomplished in life and doesn’t want anyone else around him to be successful. The shooting competition scene where Caroline is victorious over him and every other man is particularly revealing of his character and the saxophone scene is hilarious. We see subtle glimpses of the man Dwight really is and De Niro is perfect at depicting a man who is good but not great at hiding his rage.
But This Boy’s Life is much more about Toby and his struggles with never being settled and growing up with a single parent. DiCaprio’s performance is incredible; he successfully portrays the vulnerability of a teenager with the determination and bravado of a young man. Ellen Barkin is also great as the single mother who really wants the best for her son. The performances are outstanding and the story is one that will draw you in and make you want to know what happens. The production design is thoughtfully constructed depicting the 50s era but not in an overly showy way and the use of music is effective at portraying the different stages of Toby’s adolescent life. Overall this is a hard hitting film with not quite as much punch as you would expect but a great tale of a young man changing his life for the better.
This Boy’s Life is out on DVD on 10th October 2011
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Stars: Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin, Leonardo DiCaprio
Runtime: 115 mins