This Boy’s Life was Leonardo DiCaprio’s breakout role in 1993. I watched it as part of this month’s film club theme of children. It is the autobiographical coming-of-age story of writer Tobias Wolff, set in 1950s rural Washington. The story centers teen Jack (Tobias/DiCaprio), his single mom (Ellen Barkin) and her new husband (Robert DeNiro) who turns out to be a loose cannon.
I’m not sure if this film would have much of an impression on me if it weren’t for the compelling lead performances. There was all the promise you would expect to see in young DiCaprio, and DeNiro is skilled as a man who’s charming one moment and unhinged the next. He also takes on an odd, almost overdone Canadian redneck accent. The second reason this movie worked for me is that I saw it right after another coming-of-age-with-a-challenging-father-figure-set-in-the-1950s-film (Tree of Life). So, it was interesting to consider the role men played in households in the 1950s, and how women and children were in many ways powerless against it. (Thanks women’s lib!) I related to the closeness between mother and son, and also how the mother preferred to leave problems behind rather than solve them (I feel like permanently abandoning a broken car is something I would do). On the other hand, I didn’t relate to her never “refereeing” in the abuse between her husband and son, especially when she never loved her husband in the first place. I thought their first matrimonial sex scene said something pretty awful about the lot in life of many women at the time. Final takeaway was how terrible the effect adults can have on children – seems the problem is timeless.