film.com - no date
This Boy's Life

 

Strong acting helps tell twisted story | John Hartl

It's apparently impossible for Hollywood to come up with a movie based on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" without sugar-coating Mark Twain's views on racism, child abuse, religious hypocrisy and ritualized violence.

But this wonderfully flavorful adaptation of Tobias Wolff's novel, based on the author's experiences as a teenager in Seattle and Concrete in the 1950s, is at least a respectable alternative. Like Twain's classic, it's not really a children's book but a story about discovering one's own values in a hostile, corrupt environment.

The Huck of this memoir is Toby, a restless boy who hits the road with his newly divorced mother, Caroline (Ellen Barkin). Nearly penniless but free of entanglements, they escape from Utah and her latest troubled boyfriend (Chris Cooper) and head for Seattle just because the bus for Phoenix requires too long a wait.

With no money coming in from her ex-husband, and Toby demonstrating far too much potential for becoming a big-city juvenile delinquent, Caroline decides to settle down with Dwight (Robert De Niro), a single father living with his kids in the remote, oppressive town of Concrete.

It's the end of their open-road saga and the beginning of a domestic nightmare. Dwight turns out to be an unctuous, insecure monster who humiliates and abuses them both; they spend years putting up with his cruelty while looking for an affordable exit.

Screenwriter Robert Getchell, who handled a similar mother-son relationship in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, has done an incisive and generally faithful job of condensing the book, capturing Toby's initial complicity with Dwight, his fatalistic willingness to put up with a terrible situation, and the boy's on-and-off friendship with an effeminate small-town wit named Arthur (Jonah Blechman).

Some readers will mind that Getchell de-emphasizes Toby's worst traits, makes Dwight's monstrous qualities loom larger, sweetens the ending and does almost nothing to suggest that Dwight's kids have lives of their own. At his worst, Getchell tends to simplify relationships that were richer and stranger in the book.

Directed by Scottish filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal), the movie captures the 1950s in a wickedly precise, vividly anti-nostalgic style that's been all but abandoned since The Last Picture Show made such extraordinary use of it two decades ago. Getchell and Caton-Jones are especially good at suggesting that Dwight's macho bluster isn't an isolated trait, but the inevitable expression of a bullying conformist culture.

While De Niro isn't given much room to dig into Dwight's motivations, and he may have played this kind of role too often, he's certainly creepy and pathetic. It's almost as hard to read Caroline, but Barkin has no trouble suggesting her independent spirit even under the worst of conditions.

What makes the movie truly remarkable are the performances of DiCaprio, a veteran of television's "Growing Pains" who makes Toby both admirably resilient and impossibly bratty, and Blechman, who instantly transforms a recognizable type into much more than that. Together they've captured an essential truth about the difficulties of maneuvering through the minefield of adolescence in the twisted, overrated 1950s.

 

Thanks a lot to Gabi !

*

FILMOGRAPHY

MAIN