THIS BOY'S LIFE. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones; written by Robert Getchell; produced by Art Linson for Warner Bros. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin. Rated R (sexual references and a couple of scenes; language; violence).
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This movie may just force the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to give some real recognition to a "juvenile" actor.
To the best of my knowledge no minor has ever been nominated for Best Actor. But if anyone ever deserved a nomination, Leonardo DiCaprio does.
He is actually 18, but he plays a younger kid; and that's the only thing that could keep him out of the Oscar derby. Just holding his own with the co-stars he's got, De Niro and Barkin, would have been an accomplishment.
But the central importance of Toby, the "boy" of the title, means he can't get upstaged. And, amazingly enough, he never does.
For all the tremendous acting in the movie (it goes without saying that De Niro and Barkin are worth watching; and De Niro's character is one of the most interesting he's ever played) it won't appeal to everyone. Dark in mood and unsparingly realistic, it's often quite hard to watch. It does end on a positive note, however.
It's the story of a boy's coming of age in particularly difficult circumstances. His divorced mom (Barkin) is quite a character. She obviously loves him very much, but she tends to run away from problems, like violent boyfriends. Really run away. Like across the country.
As Toby gets older, though, he starts getting into trouble at school, running with a rough crowd. So maybe he needs a dad, she thinks. Enter Dwight (De Niro), an obnoxiously cheerful suitor who is a single father himself. Let him take care of Toby, and he'll straighten the kid out.
On their own, each of these three characters is fascinating. Together, they make a riveting ensemble. Since the most volatile relationship is between Dwight and Toby, it would have been easy to relegate the mother's character to a backdrop. But Barkin can't play backdrops, and she makes Caroline a multifaceted, unpredictable and sympathetic individual.
Dwight turns out to have a very quick temper, a devastatingly sarcastic tongue, and a monstrous inferiority complex. Life with him has its occasional pleasant moments, but for the most part it's a bleak, and even terrifying, existence, both for Toby and his mother.
Toby's smarter and more imaginative than the hoods he runs with. (Knowing he grows up to write the book upon which the movie is based—it's subtitled "A True Story"—helps us understand this, but DiCaprio conveys Toby's intelligence effectively as well.)
But he is a typical teenager in a lot of respects. The emotional range he conveys is impressive, and completely believeable for a kid his age faced with the circumstances he must live with.
If you can face those circumstances with him, you'll be rewarded with an unusually high-quality movie experience.
May 5, 1993