Although it's critically fashionable to bag on James Cameron's Titanic and to take cheap jabs at its actors, not all deserve abuse—Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is greatly underrated in particular. Of course he's demonstrated his abilities in better written scripts, most of which came well before he became a bonafide box office star.
Mark 1993 as the year that 19-year old DiCaprio established himself as an actor. Previously best known for his stint as Luke Brower on the television series Growing Pains, DiCaprio scored an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a retarded teen in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and even more impressively stands toe to toe with Robert De Niro and actually carries This Boy's Life on his young shoulders. This latter movie may well grow in stature in Dicaprio lore since it landed him an eventual working relationship with Martin Scorsese, who cast him in Gangs of New York and is working with him again in a new film about Howard Hughes (The Aviator). Whether film historians and critics single This Boy's Life out for recognition remains irrelevant—it's a compelling character study that is well worth watching just for Dicaprio's performance.
Based on Tobias Wolff's autobiographical story, This Boy's Life begins on an isolated Arizona highway as Toby (DiCaprio) and his divorced mother Caroline (Ellen Barkin) are fleeing Florida to escape abusive boyfriend Roy (Chris Cooper). While you have to admire Caroline's courageous spirit, especially considering her continually overheating Nash and the 1957 pre-woman's liberation period, her ideas of striking out on her own are filled with pipe dreams. She hopes to strike it rich in Salt Lake City as a uranium prospector after discovering that Moab, Utah is already overflowing with opportunistic speculators. Toby continues to get into trouble at school, and when loutish Roy surprisingly tracks her down, Caroline and son head for the Greyhound station and grab the next bus out of town, landing in Seattle. It's time for a fresh start, she reasons. She has a habit of solving problems by leaving them behind.
Of course this doesn't translate into Nirvana. Toby continues to flirt with delinquency, adopting the hairstyle and attitude of other teen "rebels," but Caroline thinks she may have found the man of her dreams in Dwight (De Niro), who represents economic security and a badly needed father figure for her son. A fellow divorcee, Dwight has four kids of his own and lives in rural Washington in a town appropriately named Concrete. He attempts to put up a positive front while courting—wearing a suit jacket, praising Caroline's coffee, and pouring on the pseudo charm—but Toby has a well-developed bullshit detector and mocks him behind his back. Caroline may very well suspect the same (from her laughing reactions to Toby's "dead on" impersonations), but she's out of viable options and doesn't want to continue running.
Predictably, Dwight's dark side surfaces. Telling people to "shut your pie-hole" becomes a trademark phrase, lying and hypocrisy a habit, and his own brand of paranoia and perversion self evident. Living with an ultimate asshole doesn't turn out to be all bad, however. Despite the dysfunctional relationship, Toby becomes stronger and fulfills Dwight's prophecy, "You'll never forget me!"
Indeed, the scenarios are so vivid that it's obvious that author Wolff is painting characters that he remembers intimately. Dwight's behavior at times becomes so despicable that it's almost hard to fathom how he ever kept out of jail or being committed to a mental hospital. De Niro plays it to the hilt, bordering almost on psychotic parody before holding back at the last instant. Although never explained, it's certainly not difficult to imagine why his first wife is no longer in the picture. It's more difficult to imagine any court granting him custody of the kids, but part of the film's strengths lie in not instantly providing all the details. One thread that runs through the film revolves around trust and honesty. Scoutmaster Dwight talks the talk, but suspicions soon arise when he breaks the news to Toby that the county Turkey Shoot officials won't allow children to compete. This idea escalates as the plot unfolds to the point when we discover what Dwight's been really doing with Toby's paper route money, and any residual respect for his character collapses.
The interactions between De Niro and DiCaprio resonate for emotional honesty and are often as intense as the explosive family confrontations in Raging Bull. De Niro can be as intimidating as any actor in the business today, and characters like De Niro's Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta dominate their scenes. However, the real revelation here is DiCaprio—he literally squares off with De Niro without backing down, and reveals remarkable range. Not only can he summon his own inner rage, but he submerges his ego and melts into the confused teen seamlessly, occasionally showing a tender side without resorting to stock actions. By doing so, he grabs our sympathies, as we all can relate to his childhood issues.
Few of us have had to suffer the emotional abuse and brutality that Dwight dishes out, but did pass out from innocence to witness some form of parental hypocrisy, or felt a similar "imprisonment" that Toby experiences in Concrete, Washington. Seeking social acceptance, Toby tries to fit in with his mainstream friends but discovers that he really has more in common with Arthur Gayle (Jonah Blechman), a fellow "alien" in the small town of a different sort, but both are destined to break out of their bonds and make their own unique way in the world. A far grittier "coming of age" story than most, This Boy's Life deftly portrays a boy's struggle to find himself without banging us over the head with its underlying message.