Based on the life and memoir of writer Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life captures the frustrations of childhood and the trust we place in our elders to protect us until we’re capable of doing it for ourselves. We first meet the young Toby on the run with his mother. Escaping her latest abusive boyfriend, the duo are excited about moving to Seattle and making their fortune. What makes this opening so sad is how much they both believe it. Toby is devoted to his mother, despite her decisions that have left them homeless and out of place. Once settled in Seattle, Toby becomes a troublesome adolescent, constantly having problems at school and struggling to find his place in the world. Things only worsen when his mother remarries. Initially, Toby dislikes his new father, Dwight, finding him cringe-worthy and a little sad. It is not long before Dwight shows his real colours. Dwight is a bully – a man who never achieved much, he detests the success and ambitions of others. The walls seem to close in around Toby when he finds himself living in the uneventful and uninspiring town of Concrete with a man who beats him physically and tortures him mentally. His mother, once his saviour and guardian, is determined to make her troubled marriage work and thus refuses to take the side of either suffering male. This Boy’s Life is a lesson in the bitterly unfair moments of growing up and the desperation to break out of the mediocre beginnings that threaten to imprison us.
Leonardo DiCaprio is astonishing. Here he features in his late teens. DiCaprio is one of those actors who just has what it takes and, in retrospect, through a viewing of This Boy’s Life, it looks like he always had it. He holds his own against the bold talents of De Niro and Ellen Barkin and the film remains his, despite De Niro’s potential ability to make it all about his character, Dwight. Dwight is a deeply sad character, content on bringing sadness to others. His twisted nature gradually seeps out with De Niro showing enough restraint to keep Dwight growing uglier and uglier even in the film’s closing moments. Consumed by his own selfishness, Dwight’s dominance over the household is felt by the way De Niro walks into rooms. This is perhaps one of De Niro’s most underrated performances. Between them, De Niro and DiCaprio create some intense, tragic scenes that question what it means to be a man and what it means to be a boy. Toby finally sets his sights on escaping Concrete. After all the injustices he faces, we route for Toby’s redemption, but his constant delinquency leaves us unconvinced that life outside of Concrete will be much better. Toby is trying to escape Dwight, not Concrete. The whole film is charged with emotion. DiCaprio spends most of the film making Toby act older than his years but when he cries he cries like a child and we are reminded of his innocence and the poor hand he’s been dealt. This Boy’s Life is a tragic drama crammed full of heartache caused by some hideous foul play.
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