It's obvious that This Boy's Life shares an affinity with Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore even before one realizes that the films share the same scribe. Like a '90s take on a '50s version of Martin Scorcese's classic '70s women's picture, This Boy's Life concerns the relationship between a kooky but lovable single mom and her excitable son. To achieve this symmetry, screenwriter Robert Getchell shifts the focus of novelist and short-story writer Tobias Wolff's original memoir so that it concentrates as much on the relationship between Ellen Barkin's Caroline and Leonardo DiCaprio's Toby as it does on Toby's inner life and the effects of his dysfunctional upbringing on his sense of self. For the most part, though, the material survives the transition, thanks in part to strong turns from the eminently likable Barkin, the meticulous Robert DeNiro, and the charismatic, mischievous young DiCaprio. The plot through which their characters walk may be familiar and it may lose its nuance when removed from the written page, but it's well-rendered, nicely acted, and relatively subtle for a family drama. The jackhammer, yet mealy mouthed cadences of DeNiro's Dwight eventually grow as tiresome as his character's unflinching brutality, while the film's emotional climax seems like a standard-issue ending tacked onto a less predictable character study. Still, it's hard not to like a picture sweet enough to include a chaste kiss between DiCaprio's Toby and Arthur Gayle's eccentric, devoted gay best friend. This Boy's Life may be the Hollywood version of Wolff's autobiography, but it comes off like a real life nonetheless.
by Brian J. Dillard review