Blended families can be a difficult adjustment even under the very best of circumstances, where all members have mutual respect for one another. Trying to make a family out of two pre-existing families takes a bit of ingenuity and a lot of patience. But sometimes, not everyone sets out to be just one big happy family, and the experience of being the unwanted stepchild is the foundation of this drama based on the novel by Tobias Wolff.
Tobias Wolff (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his flighty, nomadic mother, Caroline (Ellen Barkin) move around a lot, generally to get away from or move closer to one of the men in her life. Caroline habitually finds herself drawn to violent men and therefore thinks that seeming kind and respectable Dwight (Robert De Niro) is a catch, only to learn after their wedding that this couldn’t be further, and her new husband is an incredibly abusive stepfather, relishing in his open abuse of Tobias and his favouritism for his own children. Dwight, ever controlling of everyone in the home, is also physically and sexually abusive of Caroline.
Stuck in the going-nowhere-fast town of Concrete, Washington, Toby had few prospects and even fewer friends, his only confidante being a boy named Arthur Gayle (Jonah Blechman), who is loathed by most of the men in town as well as his peers for being gay. The longer Tobias lives under the iron fist of his cruel stepfather, the more he internalizes the worst of Dwight’s personality, which negatively affects how the boy views himself, as well as how he treats the only friend he has. Tobias wants to be better than what he is, and better than Dwight perceives him to be: smart, virtuous, strong, and independent, but when he fails to make the mark, he choose instead to fake it, lying on prep school application in order to be able to go to the east coast and get away from his dysfunctional family.
This Boy’s Life is a slice of the life of many single mothers and their children in the 1950s. Never respectable enough unless a man was in the home, and (for White women) often unable to get employment, these women were victims of patriarchy who were made to suffer abuse and subject their children to the same, if only to have their humanity validated by the rest of society. The patriarchy which left them so vulnerable did absolutely nothing to chastise Tobias’ negligent father, or protect them from Dwight’s abuse, but would shoulder women like Caroline with the responsibility of “choosing the wrong men” anyway. An accurate depiction of a harsh reality that still exists across the globe to this very day, This Boy’s Life is a film you’ll never forget.
I give this one 4.25 stars.