Picks and Pans Review: This Boy's Life

updated 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin

This is a simply told, deeply felt adaptation of Tobias Wolffs desolate memoir about his adolescence in the little town of Concrete, Wash., in the late '50s. It was, as Wolff tells it, a crushingly joyless boyhood, marked by boredom and horrifying spells of emotional and physical abuse.

The movie starts with young Tobias (DiCaprio) and his divorced mother, Caroline (Barkin), fleeing from an obsessive boyfriend of here named Roy. When Roy catches up with them in Salt Lake City, they uproot again, to Seattle, where she effects an even more disastrous union: She marries Dwight (De Niro), a mechanic whose fiercely angled flattop is the first hint of a fundamental, dangerous bristliness. Once he has brought the family back to his home in Concrete, Dwight reveals himself to be a bullying, bellowing nightmare, a small-time Mussolini who proudly displays himself in a new scoutmaster uniform while forcing his new stepson to wear a humiliatingly oversize Boy Scout hand-me-down.

De Niro's performance is a strange one. He starts off with grotesque comedy, wooing Barkin with a flamboyant, ungainly courtliness—part Gomer Pyle, part Richard III. Then he lapses into his Cape Fear, Dolby-stereo tenor mode. By the end, though, Dwight makes sad sense to us: His awareness of his own tininess is so exaggerated, he has become an enormity.

Barkin, with her hair dyed a tarnished blond and her broken-crockery face carefully powdered and lipsticked, is a woman who has gone as far as her sexiness and her brains will carry her. DiCaprio, 18, in his first major movie role, carries the film with impressive ease. He only occasionally lets you see the hurt beneath this miserable kid's affected toughness and bored indifference.

This Boy's Life is far from flawless. With the exception of Tobias's homosexual high school friend (nicely played by Jonah Blechman), the secondary characters are almost invisible. Dwight's three children from a first marriage just stand around and look aggrieved, like unhappily enchanted furniture in a Disney cartoon. And admirers of the book may complain that the movie, which lurches preposterously into Hollywood uplift at its conclusion, betrays Wolff, whose beautifully bleak prose suggests that, no matter how far you go in life, you never really get away from Concrete. But the performances are rich compensation. This Boy's Life would be worth seeing just for the scene where Barkin, succumbing to depression, retreats to her bed and, fully clothed, pulls up the covers and wills herself to sleep. (R)

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