Matinee Magazine - April 2000

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'This Boy's Life'

by Jason Clark, Co-Creator and Theater Editor

I must confess, I have not yet seen The Beach so I can't counter that DiCaprio's 15 minutes are up yet. But based on his sterling breakthrough performance in Michael Caton-Jones' evocative, moving 1993 film This Boy's Life, I can safely say that he will be with us for a very, very long time. A surprising bomb upon release, Life is an adaptation of writer Tobias Wolff's memoir of his formative years. Living with his single but spirited mom (Ellen Barkin, never better), the film focuses mostly on their relationship with Dwight (Robert DeNiro), a monstrous stepfather of Tobias' who exploits any opportunity to belittle him, or in the most severe cases, beat him.

This kind of story could be played out a hundred different ways, but what is so remarkable about the film is how even at its glossiest, it is about its people, especially Tobias who is presented as a fairly accurate teen. As beautifully portrayed by DiCaprio, Tobias is agreeable, raucous, foolish and winsome, and this splendid actor finds every right note in every single scene. His charisma overrides everything else, but doesn't upstage the others or make Tobias into an easy victim or fool. DiCaprio has lost a little of this intuition of late in his performances, but here more than in any of the others, he blends guile and generosity with alarming precision.

Caton-Jones' film (the best he's ever done too) is a movie of moments, and DiCaprio takes full advantage. When his mother tells him she has a date with Dwight well before they end up the ultimate dysfunctional clan, Tobias wails, "Not that guy from the boondocks!". DiCaprio's delivery of this line is so perfect, it has that easily identifiable, exasperated whine that any typical teen excels at. Just after, he begins sounding out Dwight's name in what he thinks is only his presence ("Duhhh-wight" "De-whiiite!"), not knowing that Duh-wight is coming through the door at that very moment. There are some scenes in this film that are so studied and exact, you begin to think that the filmmakers just kept a camera on DiCaprio in anticipation of his next move without even telling him about it.

Another beautifully developed subplot involves a friend of Tobias' (played unforgettably by Jonah Blechman) who is his best friend and has developed an unspoken crush on him. This has one of the best teen-envy storylines in any film in Hollywood history, and develops truthfully and without any of the judgmental or faux-gay signifiers lesser films have implored. Dwight labels the boy as "rooting for the pink team", but Tobias is more sensitive, and in DiCaprio's masterful hands, we even get a sense that he already knows that, and that he is slightly flattered by the attention that his new "family" isn't giving him. In a heartfelt scene where his pal is compelled to kiss him, the scene isn't played for a punchline (as in, say, In & Out). It has a resonant sting especially because DiCaprio's reaction to it is so believable. Like his entire portrayal, it is infused with humanity, never going for the obvious solution or instinct.

I think this is one of the 1990's most sadly overlooked films, richly directed and written (by Robert Getchell) and a terrific entertainment as well. This is a great family film too (despite the R-rating and some harsh scenes of domestic abuse) simply because it has honest depictions of individuals in it, and its stirring but ultimately hopeful tale of a young man trying to break free of a hellish existence is completely reliable to virtually anyone who has undergone adolescence or preparing for it. And right in the middle of it is a star-making performance by a young man who did pretty well for himself since. Especially where gargantuan ocean liners are concerned.

Thanks to Gabi !

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