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‘This Boy’s Life’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 23, 1993

"This Boy's Life," adapted from the coming-of-age memoir by Tobias Wolff, overcomes the temptation to view '50s adolescence -- either the hero's or America's -- through the Vaseline-coated lens of nostalgia. It challenges the cherished notions that youth was sweeter then, and that the American family was more functional. Like the more accessible "Stand by Me," it is an affecting teen melodrama haunted by twisted treehouse memories.

If the Nelsons were the nation's fantasy family, the Wolffs were closer to its reality: a family so dysfunctional it spawned passage bios from both Tobias and his brother Gregory. While Gregory lived with their father in Princeton, N.J., Tobias (Leonardo DiCaprio) moved West with their mother, Caroline (Ellen Barkin). Gifted with an optimistic outlook if little common sense, Caroline is bound for Utah, where she expects to strike uranium. She also thinks that she is escaping a run of bad jobs and worse men when she takes up with the sweet-talking Dwight (Robert De Niro).

Toby, who hides the pain of his father's rejection under increasing belligerence, is not fooled by Dwight's courting camouflage, but he doesn't interfere when the exhausted Caroline decides to marry the burr-headed mechanic from dreary Concrete, Wash. Jealous of his stepson's close relationship with Caroline and irked by his smarts and spirit, Dwight makes life increasingly miserable for Toby. A blustering fool and a macho bully, he decides to "kill or cure" Toby of his insolence through regular beatings and mocking references to his brother at Princeton and his now well-fixed father. Not to mention stealing Toby's paper route money, shoving a jar into his eye for "wasting" mustard, and refusing him basketball shoes so Toby must practice barefoot.

Determined to make her marriage work this time, Caroline ignores Dwight's brutishness to concentrate on fixing up her husband's dreary cabin and caring for her three timid stepchildren. She refuses to intercede on behalf of her son, who nevertheless finds a way to escape his abusive stepfather and the gray confines of Concrete. Inspired by her son's resourcefulness, Caroline also finds the strength to break away -- this time on her own.

Barkin's succulence and De Niro's showboating lend sizzle and ferocity to the proceedings, but the film draws its poignancy from 18-year-old DiCaprio's performance. A regular on TV's "Growing Pains," DiCaprio is not in the least diminished by the big stars or the bigger screen. Another young actor, Jonah Blechman, creates a memorable character in Toby's best friend, who is openly gay and keeps the hero honest with himself.

Michael Caton-Jones, the Scottish director of "Scandal," "Memphis Belle" and "Doc Hollywood," approaches the subject with almost too much objectivity. He could learn a thing or two from his countryman Bill Forsyth's messier, more heartfelt look at growing up, "Gregory's Girl." There is nothing of girls in "This Boy's Life," which only underscores the protagonist's devotion to his ineffectual mother. The relationship holds a promise that screenwriter Robert Getchell, of the single-mom movies "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "Stella," ultimately fails to tap.

"This Boy's Life" contains strong language, violence and sexual situations.

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