This Boys Life 90Veteran and newcomer shine equally brightly in this tale of claustrophobic life in a small town.

Distributor: Second Sight
Length: 110 minutes

A convincing and assured performance by Leonardo DiCaprio beats some of his later roles as he lives out all the frustrations and insecurities of a teenager in this true story, based on the autobiography of literature professor, Tobias Wolff.

It is his first lead and one he shares with veteran Robert de Niro, who was maybe playing the prototype for his Meet the Parents role as the old man making a younger one feel distinctly uncomfortable.

There is no comedy in this one, though. Young teenager Toby (DiCaprio) travels with his single mother Caroline (Ellen Barkin) as she goes from town to town and relationship to relationship. When they settle in Seattle, she falls for the primitive charms of Dwight (De Niro), although her son has his own impressions (in both senses of the word) of Dwight and keeps his distance.

Rootless, Toby starts to get into trouble, against his own wishes. Dwight is shortly to marry Caroline and insists on taking Toby up to his house in the small, dry and dusty town of Concrete. We see him trying to instill a little discipline, with the help of the Boy Scouts organisation and some threatening behaviour.

“In years to come, you’ll thank me” Dwight insists and at this stage our sympathies are partly with him, as Toby does not help himself.

On the wedding night, Dwight and Caroline disagree about how they want to make love. “It’s my house and I get to say,” insists Dwight, and now that he has caught his woman, he starts to get his own way in everything.

Caroline feels that this is her last chance and is resolute about making the marriage work, so refuses to referee in Dwight and Toby’s clashes. Toby feels trapped. He craves a break from this increasing oppression and something has to give…

Both male leads shine. De Niro balances a smouldering aggression with a pathetic underbelly as he portrays a man frightened to let anyone become stronger than him and who knows only violence as a tool. He has three children, but we never find out why his wife is no longer on the scene.

DiCaprio authentically portrays all the confusion and alienation of a fatherless teenager, who has lost his roots and can find little hope of a satisfying future.

With Caroline’s reticence to take sides, Barkin has less work to do, but her love for her son shines through, as does her unease with Dwight’s oppressive nature.

This absorbing DVD is all about the viewer sensing Toby’s claustrophobia in both the small town and the new family home. Its plot could be more substantial, but the story draws us in and the performances are excellent.

(The review copy had no extras).

Derek Walker